LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Nestled on Walton Street in London's stylish Knightsbridge, the Andipa Gallery is taking delivery of life-sized prints, newsprint sculptures and mammoth murals from New York, Los Angeles and Paris.
Maria Andipa, 80, founded the gallery on this very site 40 years ago after a career as an actress that saw her play a gypsy in the James Bond film "From Russia with Love" and appear alongside Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope.
Her son Acoris, 40, became director and owner 18 years ago, continuing the Greek family's long-running tradition in art dealing that began in Venice as far back as 1593.
Much has changed in that time, and the gallery is preparing to stage the first collective exhibition of the work of urban artists from around the globe.
"Trespass Alliance: Inside Urban Art" will feature works from a string of renowned artists including: D*Face, a London-based multimedia street artist famed for putting defaced 10 pound notes into circulation and creating a 9 ft tall ice sculpture of a spray-can in the Arctic Circle.
Also there is Swoon, a New York-based artist known for her life-sized wheatpaste prints and cut-out paper portrayals of people going about their every day lives; and WK Interact, a French artist based in New York, known for his black and white painted murals of skaters, Kung Fu masters, boxers and mountain climbers.
"Street" art, whose high priest is Bristol-based graffiti artist Banksy, is growing in popularity across the world: in a typical week, the Andipa Gallery will sell works to collectors in Mexico, Kuwait, Paris, Los Angeles and London.
A growing band of people -- particularly the wealthy and those in high-powered banking jobs looking to spend bonuses -- are turning their attention to such alternative investments as the credit crunch continues and investors take a "flight to safety".
Rising demand is stoking prices in the sector, according to the first art and antiques survey by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS).
Pictures performed particularly well during the first quarter of 2008, with 44 percent more respondents reporting a rise than a fall in lots in the 5,000-pound and over range.
That, they say, is attributable to a surge in interest in urban art: works from Banksy, Damien Hirst and Peter Doig sold for more than 10,000 pounds during the first three months of the year.
It is a trend that looks set to continue, says the owner of the Andipa Gallery.
"We've never followed the fads or trends," he tells Reuters.
"It took us a long time before pushing the button and getting into the Banksy market.
"I loved his work, but I wanted to make sure that it would go beyond the point of no return, which it has done, and now we have a multi-million pound position."
With stories -- some true, some myths -- abounding of people making huge amounts of money on urban art (Banksy's Riot Green, for example, was bought at his first official exhibition eight years ago with a student loan and is now valued at 150,000 pounds), the movement has become closely followed.
It is, however, this commoditization of urban art -- the fact that it is almost traded as a form of currency -- that could spell a correction, and burn the fingers of those simply looking to cash in.
Andipa has seen that happen three or four times in his career, when speculators plough into "new movements": the Young British Artists (YBAs or Britart) in the early 90s -- Hirst, Tracey Emin and the like -- is a prime example.
"It doesn't work when you approach a subject that's emotional like art in a mathematical or scientific way," says Andipa.
"Every time anybody has said to us that they want to follow something not because they like it, but because they feel they could get into it, they lose money.
"Those who love it, or at least have an understanding and are willing to learn about it, are the ones who make the big bucks."
The market can be volatile, and an inherent lack of liquidity means art should be viewed as the "cherry on the top" of an investment portfolio, says Christine Ross, head of financial planning at SG Hambros Private Bank.
Clients with such investments tend to hold just around 5-10 percent of their total portfolio value in works of art.
"When you come to sell, who knows where the market will be? It can very much depend on what's in vogue," she says. "While you'll probably find a buyer for most pieces, at what price?"
"Yes, over time, art should appreciate. But, while it's a bona fide financial investment it shouldn't be classed as that alone: alternative assets should be bought as much for enjoyment as potential profit."
Beware, too, of other financial factors: maintenance, storage, insurance and taxation.
A recent tax crackdown on non-domiciled British residents makes it no longer possible to buy valuable items -- such as works for art, cars or jewelry -- with offshore assets and bring them into Britain while avoiding a tax liability.
* "Trespass Alliance: Inside Urban Art" will run at the Andipa Gallery (www.andipamodern.com) from 26 June to 20 July. Works will sell for between 1,500 and 100,000 pounds.
Read Reuters consumer finance blog here
(Editing by Stephen Addison and Paul Casciato)
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