The art market in France during the Nazi occupation provided one of the best available investment opportunities, according to research by Kim Oosterlinck, published in the December 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Using an original database to recreate an art market price index for the period 1937-1947, his study shows that in a risk-return framework, gold was the only serious alternative to art.
The research indicates that discretion, the inflation-proof character of art, the absence of market intervention and the possibility of reselling works abroad all played a crucial role in the valuation of artworks. Some investors were ready to go to the black market to acquire assets that could easily be resold abroad. But for those who preferred to stay on the side of legality, the art market provided an attractive alternative.
The author notes that the French art market during the occupation has been the subject of numerous publications. But most of these focus on the fate of looted artworks, with limited attention given to the art market itself.
What''s more, previous research on the economics of art usually considers artworks as a poor investment. But the case of occupied France shows that in extreme circumstances, artworks may prove extremely attractive investment vehicles.
During wartime, illegal activities and the risk of being forced to flee the country increased the appeal of ''discreet assets'' – ones that allow the storage of a large amount of value in small and easily transportable goods.
By comparing the price index for small and large artworks, the new study establishes that investors were looking for smaller artworks, especially just before the German invasion and during the period 1942-1943, when the black market flourished.
Non-pecuniary motives for buying art, such as ''conspicuous consumption'', are often thought of as playing an important role in art valuation. The new research analyses this point for occupied France by exploiting the distinction made by the Nazis between ''degenerate'' and ''non-degenerate'' artworks.
Pricing of ''degenerate'' works was indeed affected by the impossibility of engaging in their conspicuous consumption. The price difference between these two categories of artworks is clear at the beginning of the occupation, when the Nazi policy towards ''degenerate'' artworks held in France had not been clearly spelled out.
The difference gradually vanished as it became known that Hitler took a favourable view of French ''artistic decadence'' and was not planning to get these works destroyed as long as they remained in France.
Discretion does not only concern artworks, the researcher notes. Other discreet assets, such as collectible stamps, also experienced sharp price increases during the Nazi occupation of France. Assets that are easy to transport and hide therefore have characteristics that are valued by some investors during troubled times.
The interest in discreet artworks goes beyond wartime. At any point, tax evaders may be willing to buy art or other discreet assets to hide illicit profits or to diminish their tax burden. As a result, when wealth and wealth inequality increase, so does demand for discreet assets.
Whereas previous research traditionally attributes these price increases to social competition, the new study suggests an alternative explanation: assets that facilitate tax evasion should fetch a higher price in an environment characterised by increasing wealth inequality. The research thus opens the door to a different interpretation of the high demand for artworks in Japan in the 1990s or in China today.
''Art as a Wartime Investment: Conspicuous Consumption and Discretion'' by Kim Oosterlinck is published in the December 2017 issue of the Economic Journal. Kim Oosterlinck is at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.