Wealthy people have invested in art since time immemorial. But the modem art market emerged only in the late nineteenth century, as private wealth gradually spread to the bourgeoisie. As the art market grew and the most desirable artworks became extremely valuable, individuals and institutions began to form "art funds" to invest in this promising new asset class. In 1904, a group of Parisian art collectors formed La Peau d'Ours, the first private art investment club. Between 1974 and 1980, the British Rail Pension Fund invested £40 million in art. And in the 2000s, many private investment companies created art funds. While some of those art funds were successful, many were not.
The art market is notoriously opaque and insular. On the primary market, only insiders have access to desirable works, and even basic information like price is typically confidential. And even on the secondary market, access is limited, and information remains scarce and unreliable. This cartelization and inefficiency often provides lucrative arbitrage opportunities to insiders with access and reliable information, even as they make it difficult for outsiders to profitably invest in the secondary market.
Financial technology ("fmtech") promises to transform the art market by providing access and information to retail investors. In theory, art funds could provide access to the art market by using crowdfunding platforms to sell shares in art portfolios, and use data analytics to identify promising art investments. Perhaps they could even create an "art index fund," and enable retail investors to invest in the art market as a whole, rather than a particular artist or portfolio.
But in practice, fintech is unlikely to make art funds a wise choice for retail investors or most institutional investors. The promise of access and information is a chimera. Art world insiders typically have no incentive to give art funds access to the primary market, because plenty of private capital is available. Data analytics are useless without accurate information. And an "art index fund" would be like investing in lottery tickets, because only a vanishingly small number of works have any value on the secondary market, and even fewer increase in value. Unless the art market becomes more transparent, fmtech probably has little to offer potential art fund investors.
Frye, Brian L., "New Art for the People: Art Funds & Financial Technology" (2018). Law Faculty Scholarly Articles. 620.