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Mapping Profits: Cartography and Fine Art Investment

Fine art buying has long been the province of wealthy connoisseurs and international collectors, keen on indulging their passion and untroubled by cost and potential profit.

Pablo Picasso's "Le pigeon aux petit pois (The Pigeon with Green Peas)" was one of the stolen paintings.
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso's "Le pigeon aux petit pois (The Pigeon with Green Peas)" was one of the stolen paintings.

The world of rare maps may also seem one in which only true specialists may concern themselves—particularly at the high prices items like these can command. But with a little know-how and perhaps a little more cash, the right purchase could bag you a real masterpiece—and most importantly, keep your money safe.

"Certainly in interesting financial times such as we are living in at the moment, people might wish to keep their cash in something that is perhaps a little more tangible," said Daniel Crouch, owner of Crouch Rare Books.

In the world of cartography, prices for some of the rarest and most sought-after maps—like those of famous cartographer William Blough—can reach into the millions. At that cost, why choose to invest in a map over other artworks?

Well, if you have to choose between a Monet and a map, it's clear the latter is less pricey. "I think it’s safe to say that within the art world in general, maps and atlases are comparatively inexpensive," said Crouch.

As with most investments of passion, a little knowledge and a real interest in the subject is probably best in order to make the best buys.

Philip Curtis, owner of specialist London store The Map House, shared his insight: "The earlier the piece is, the more likely it is to be rare because fewer survive. So age and rarity do go together. Rarity and size also frequently correspond.

"Buy the best you can, buy what you like. Something that you enjoy owning but then hopefully if you decide eventually to sell, you get the investment opportunity as well."

Even though the upper end of the map market has been growing between 10 and 20 percent per year, experts say it is still difficult to make substantial profits.

While there are no cartography funds, the longest-running fine art fund has been out-performing many indices.

Ruth Knowles, director of global markets and business development at the Fine Art Fund Group told CNBC that the industry was varied enough for different kinds of investors to get involved.

"There are a lot of different sectors of the market that you can play around in…if you want to make money out of it, then yes buy the best. But the best doesn’t necessarily mean 10, 15, 20 million dollars.

"You can look at different artists, different sectors within an artists work…and they can all go at different cost prices. And also it depends if you are looking at old masters, more contemporary works or works from emerging markets—they can be more affordable."

While the finite supply of old masters’ works means that they retain value well, Knowles suggested that expert knowledge can help the investor find contemporary artists whose work will grow in value.

She said it was important to understand how "schools" of work function—artists associated with a particular school of art can gain or lose value simultaneously. This allows the investor to make more affordable purchases from within a school associated with much more famous names.

Knowles had some basic pointers for the prospective investor: "If you want to really make money out of art, you do need to diversify. We always say that because art is a long-term asset, you should only really put about 5 percent of your net worth into art because it could take a long time to mature in value."

She said it is also important to buy from different periods. "Certainly within our funds, we look at over 600 years-worth of art. We do say 30 to 35 percent should be in old masters because they are the very steady performers. But equally, contemporary you can bring in which could give you your supra-normal profits."

Perhaps the best example which shows the low correlation between art prices and financial market performance was Damien Hurst’s £200 million ($31 million) sale—it took place on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse.

"There are always going to be things that will affect the market," she said. "Yes, there were downturns in certain sectors of the market, but that’s why the art world becomes so interesting, because there are so many different sectors that don’t act the same way."

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