In the end, about $1.1 billion of contemporary art were purchased during the two-day sale at Christie’s and Sotheby’s.*
Driving their prices higher and higher are a group of ultra-wealthy buyers, who are indulging in a form of gladiatorial combat to win the most glittering trophies. Owning a major Bacon, Freud, Basquiat or Koons immediately sets them apart from other billionaires, giving bragging power as no other possession can. Displaying such a prize in their penthouses, luxury yachts or private museums is the equivalent of hanging a cheque on the wall, asserting that they can afford these multi-million-dollar baubles.
The pool of these mega-wealthy buyers is growing; they come from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and India, and have entered the fray alongside the more established American and European collector base. The market is now so global that taste has become homogenised: billionaires across the world know who are the top artists and want the same recognisable things – pushing up prices even further. Two Asian bidders, for example, went after the Bacon at Christie’s, one pushing it right up to its final price. . .
But that’s not all:
There is no doubt that investment – and speculation – is also driving this market. With stock exchanges unpredictable and interest rates pathetic, the blue-chip artists are seen as a safe place to park money. As the prices rise, so does the incentive to buy more – and bidding up works by a name already in your collection increases their value even more, which might be really useful if you want to use it as collateral for a loan one day.
Is there financial manipulation going on as well? A small group of dealers and collectors are certainly encouraging this inflation, by giving so-called guarantees on works sent for sale. Under this system, they promise to buy a work of art at a secret price, so ensuring it will sell. If it goes over their bid, then they share in the extra money generated. So the work is sold even before it hits the auction block. The system has become a fearsome weapon in the auction houses’ armoury when they are fighting for consignments: many blame it also for inflating prices. Christie’s sale this month was underpinned by no less than 22 guarantees, some given by outside investors, others by the firm itself.
So at the upper reaches of the market, buying the top names is also a pretty safe bet. Today, the world’s richest people are worth multiple billions, so putting even a sliver of their fortune into art will hardly dent their bank balances – and buying art is a sure-fire entry ticket to what has become a very exclusive, billionaires’ playground.
*Dan Colen’s “Holy Shit” was auctioned at Sotheby’s for $341,000.