NEW YORK: Half the world may still be racked by recession and austerity, but nobody told the art collectors. At two sales in New York, buyers have spent more than $1bn (£620m) on postwar and contemporary paintings and sculptures, setting new world records for the most valuable work of art ever sold at auction, the most valuable work by a living artist ever sold at auction, and the highest auction total in art market history.
“I love the art market,” said Melanie Gerlis, London-based art market editor of the Art Newspaper. “But even I am struggling to see how paintings can be worth this amount of money. This is billionaires having fun. Art has become the accepted elevating hobby of the super-rich. It’s a lot more sophisticated than a yacht.”
On November 12, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, a 1969 triptych by Francis Bacon, sold at Christie’s after a furious six-minute bidding war for $142.4m, some $20m more than the previous record for a work of art at auction, achieved by Edvard Munch’s The Scream at Sotheby’s last year. The same sale saw a Jeff Koons sculpture, Balloon Dog, change hands for $58.4m — $20m more than anyone has ever paid before at auction for a work by a living artist — and set further world auction records for another eight artists, including Willem de Kooning and Lucio Fontana.
In all, three works sold for more than $50m, 16 for more than $10m and 56 for more than $1m.
On November 13, Sotheby’s set new world auction records for seven more artists, including Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol, whose 1963 painting Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster), consisting of two panels depicting the aftermath of a car crash, fetched $105m, smashing the previous auction record for a Warhol — set in 2007 — by more than $30m.
Gerlis said the prices being paid for top works were being driven largely by new and anonymous buyers, particularly from Asia, the Middle East and Russia. These, said Gerlis, were “the top one per cent of the top one per cent, for whom austerity has clearly never hit. But this has no rational investment basis whatsoever. Other assets are just a bit boring”.
Some more traditional artworld members do not appreciate the avalanche of new money. “I’m an art collector,” the former Hollywood agent turned Silicon Valley dealmaker Michael Ovitz said after the Sotheby’s sale. “This is not about collecting. For a moment last night I thought I was in the commodities market.”
Although the buyers of some works, such as the Bacon triptych, were identified as New York galleries, Gerlis said it would “not be them paying with their own money. Goodness knows who the actual buyer is”.
In the auction house reports, buyers are described as “international trade”, “anonymous”, “Asian trade” or simply “US private”. Dealers and market insiders have also said that, besides billionaires trophy-hunting for their private vanity museums, a rash of new and often state-backed museums across China and the Gulf states have contributed to the surge.
Matthew Paton at Christie’s insisted it was not just the very top end of the market that was booming. Sales of all works at the 250-year-old auction house surged by 10 per cent last year to nearly $6.3bn, helped by nearly 700 works that fetched more than $1m and 50 that went for more than $10m. This year’s figures are nine per cent up on last year.
“It is the monster, ginormous sales that make all the headlines,” Paton said. “And it is extraordinary when you think about it: there were six people bidding more than $100m for the Bacon on November 12 night. We’ve also seen an enormous increase in the depth of people wanting to buy at above $20m.” As per Paton, Christie’s is seeing a growing global demand for art at all price levels. The market is expanding geographically: auctions are being hosted for first time in Shanghai and Mumbai, and the number of Asian buyers soared by 15 per cent last year.