The ballooning market for art


Artworks are mad money these days. For several years now, the auction market for artwork has bloated out to ridiculous levels. Last November, the record hit a new all-time high: a 1969 triptych, "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" by Francis Bacon, sold for $142.4 million. Before that, the record was $119.9 million for a pastel version of Munch's "The Scream."

That's nuts, but somewhat expected. Your Warhols, Rothkos and Koons' are pricey commodities. But the bloat is also showing in the contemporary world, and that's where it gets particularly crazy. That is, speculation is launching prices for works by emerging (male artists in their 20s and 30s in particular) to dizzying levels. For instance, in two years, the prices for pieces by Oscar Murillo and Lucien Smith have increased 3,000 percent. These are the hedge funds of the realm.

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BloombergBusinessweek reported in mid-February just how strange the market has become. Longtime industry members have never seen a landscape like this. Everyone is jumping in on what could turn into a valuable investment, and that, of course, can get dangerous. It doesn't protect the artists who get caught up in the system (who, per market taboos, are hogtied by past pricing they shouldn't lower today), nor does it budget for the inevitable bubble burst.

New York Magazine published a feature on this, warning: "Five Theories on Why the Art Market Can't Crash," and the sub-headline, "And why it will anyway." There are the usual gross hucksters peddling for posh young galleries in some fancy place, and the old-timers just waiting for them to go away, the ones who lived through the last downturn in the cycle.

One such subject put it this way: “The art market comes to the fore when there’s a lot of discretionary spending. Collectors are competing with each other. The prices of art accelerate. The age of the most expensive artists drops. There’s a great flowering. Schadenfreude starts building up. And then it crumbles erratically.”

And this is where we're at today:
But the younger end of the spectrum has even more momentum. Last October, for example, Christie’s capitalized on the Frieze Art Fair’s bringing international collectors to London to create a bona fide contemporary-art event. Two paintings, by Tim Eitel and Matthias Weischer of Germany’s “Leipzig School,” created a presale sensation. You could have bought such works for as little as $4,000 a few years back, before the Leipzig School hype started building, and neither artist had ever come to auction before the Frieze fair. There was some surprise when the Eitel sold at $212,000, three times the high estimate. But the stunner was Weischer. Estimated at $31,000 to $38,000, his painting soared to $370,000, instantly making it shorthand for everything overblown in the current market.
I'd love to tell you local numbers — what works are going for, what's popular, and what is the market shaping up to look like — but it's hard to say, since there are no clear numbers on the exchange of visual art in town, and certainly nothing like a Christie's to corral the circus. But what's the trickle-down? When it all collapses in the upper echelons, what kind of effect, if any, will it have here?

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