Buying art on the cheap in Argentina, courtesy of the government

BUENOS AIRES (Bloomberg) - For Argentines desperate to get their hands on dollar-based assets, this weekend's art festival in Buenos Aires, arteBA, is a can't-miss event.

Not only will they be able to buy artwork that is quoted in U.S. dollars with their pesos, they will be granted a favourable exchange rate on the transactions. Well-heeled attendees can access dollars at the official rate, sidestepping currency controls that would otherwise send them to the illegal black market where greenbacks cost 40 per cent more.

In Argentina, art isn't just art. It is a dollar-based asset that acts as a store of wealth in an economy ravaged by inflation. Consumer prices have risen 29 per cent annually over the past four years, according to economists' estimates, while the peso has tumbled 55 per cent against the dollar in that span.

"Anything priced at the official rate is interesting in Argentina nowadays," real-estate agent Braulio Bauab, 48, said between sips of champagne at the 2015 arteBA. "I've bought a couple of pieces because I found them beautiful, but I also considered their potential for preserving or increasing value."

At the four-day festival in Buenos Aires, expected to attract more than 100,000 visitors, international galleries are allowed to bring in artworks as temporary imports. When local buyers find something they like, the culture secretariat and the customs office have stands at the fair to speed up the process of making the imports permanent.

Argentina's favourable treatment of artworks contrasts with the government's stance on imports of other luxury goods such as jewellery and designer clothing, which officials have restricted amid concern that they are draining dollar reserves. Total imports this year have dropped to the lowest level since 2009.

Among the artworks for sale are items from local artists with international renown. Options include a US$60,000 (S$80,869) sculpture by 72-year-old Marta Minujin, the mother of JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s president in Argentina, Facundo Gomez Minujin. Her works are in the collection of New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Liliana Porter, whose pieces are held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, also has works at the fair.

Last year, a record 22,000 art pieces were sold in the nation, according to the Argentine Galleries Association. That was a 25 per cent increase from 2013.

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