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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
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