Quartz Weekend Brief—Art-world madness, existential threats, the #Rohingya’s tragedy, American trains

Good morning, Quartz readers!

The art world has just had an extraordinary few days. The spring auction season in New York raked in $2.7 billion in sales, a 23% increase on a year ago, and broke several records, including the most expensive work ever sold at auction. That title now belongs to Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), which sold for $179.4 million, 28% above its estimate. Giacommetti’s L’Homme au Doigt went for $141.3 million, breaking the record for most expensive sculpture.

What’s driving this is partly demand from newly minted Asian billionaires—as well as Russian ones, apparently unaffected by their country’s economic collapse—and partly an an arms race between the major auction houses, Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and the distant third, Phillips. In this race Christie’s, which sold the lion’s share, has been by far the most aggressive in offering price guarantees to owners of prime artworks to entice them to sell—a gambit that paid off this time, but can be risky if demand turns out to be weaker than the auction house estimates. As a result the art industry is becoming increasingly like the movie industry, reliant on blockbusters to stay afloat.

There’s one sense in which this art economy, crazy as it seems, need not concern the ordinary person; it’s a small, closed club of the super-rich, outbidding one another in an attempt to boost their prestige(paywall). A bubble in the art market says nothing about a bubble in the wider economy. Yet as the veteran art critic Jerry Saltz lamented, the higher their prices climb, the likelier it is that these superb works will now vanish into private homes—or worse, and increasingly often,secure warehouses—rarely, if ever, to be seen again in public. That goes against the very reason the artists made them in the first place.—Gideon Lichfield

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

The people saving us from self-destruction. A group of academics in the US and UK, ranging from philosophers to astrophysicists, are working on understanding the greatest threats to humanity—and they aren’t always the things you might expect. Kabir Chibber met the masters of the field of “existential risk.”

Every American child should learn how to code. It’s an essential skill on its own, but also helps with problem-solving, organization and logical thinking. Sonali Kohli looks at why the US has such a shortage of computer scientists and argues that US schools are failing their students, especially women and minorities, by not teaching these skills earlier.

Welcome to Dronetown, USA. Zach Wener-Fligner explains how a small rural area in Washington state, known at first for pears and then for outdoor sports, became America’s drone production hub, making it the place with the fastest-rising incomes outside the shale oil patch.

The Verizon-AOL merger’s unexpected helpers. It wasn’t Goldman or Morgan Stanley that advised the companies in this week’s $4.4 billion deal, but small M&A advisory firms that are taking away business from “bulge bracket” banks. Jason Karaian explains why the boutique firms are getting more business, and the big guys had better watch out.

Marc Andreesen likes a good bourbon. The Silicon Valley bigwig actually doesn’t drink the really fancy stuff, but the Weller 12-year-old, a working man’s liquor. The catch? Due to the industry’s oligopoly structure, bottles of the delicious Weller 12 are very hard to find, writes Paul Smalera.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

The impossible SpaceX dream that somehow came true. Elon Musk’s space venture started out with a crazy idea, a moldy Soviet rocket manual, and a lot of spare cash, writes Ashlee Vance at Bloomberg. It almost cost Musk his other brainchild, Tesla Motors, but now SpaceX has matured into a $12-billion operation that launches a rocket a month.

The US’s Pakistan policy is nuts. This week a prominent—and highly controversial—new account of Osama bin Laden’s death alleged that Pakistan, as many suspected, was harboring him all along. Christine Fair at the National Interest argues that, bin Laden aside, the US has been letting its ally get away with far too much for far too long.

Asia’s ignored immigration crisis. Echoing the plight of African migrants in the Mediterranean, thousands of Rohingya refugees are now caught in a “game of maritime ping-pong” between the countries they’ve fled and those that won’t take them in, as Thomas Fuller and Joe Cochrane report for the New York Times (paywall). And for the Guardian, Sara Perria visits a Rohingya ghetto in Myanmar to understand why so many are trying to escape.

What would “Brexit” look like? After winning a second term, prime minister David Cameron pledged to re-shape Britain’s relationship with Europe. The Guardian looks at what a British exit from the EU would change in terms of GDP, jobs, trade, and immigration. The picture is complicated, but the cons definitely outweigh the pros.

Why America can’t have nice trains. The week of a deadly crash on the Washington-New York Amtrak line, Simon van Zuylen Wood at National Journal delves into the politics and economics of why, as other countries’ trains run ever faster, those in the US seem to be getting steadily more mediocre.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, Brexit scenarios, and train designs tohi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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