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Inflation bulls lift art auction prices to sky

About Jack Markowitz
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Business Columnist
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Retired business editor Jack Markowitz writes Sundays and Thursdays.

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By Jack Markowitz

Published: Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

That was close. A “bubble” might have burst in the art world last week. But it was a false alarm. This week's sales rolled on.

Works of modern art at which some folks shake their heads — laugh, even — continue to sell for stratospheric prices. If it's by a big name, big money snaps it up. Moderns and Impressionists are all the rage among the rich who have wall space. Hence the 20th-century theme of New York's big semi-annual auctions.

Christie's initial sale was scary, though. Most of its priciest “lots” didn't move. Were connoisseurs finally saying, “Stop the inflation — I want to get off”?

No, on subsequent nights, rival Sotheby's nailed one of its richest auctions ever: $290 million worth of goods went out the door.

A Reuters report called it a “dramatic turnaround.”

A record $50 million bought a large sculpted head of a young man by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) in his usual gloomy style, pulled out of shape, elongated, starved-looking.

“Tete de femme” (Head of a Woman) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) drew $39.9 million. The lady's face wasn't turned every which way, but she was sufficiently mangled to pass as art.

Her price was far from a record for the gilt-edged painter, though. At a 2004 auction his “Boy With a Pipe” fetched $104 million. Imagine, American millionaire Jock Whitney had bought it in 1950 for $30,000.

That sort of inflation is the pattern of the age, accepted and even welcomed. Collectors and brokers crave a bull market in art as others do in stocks.

The other day, a week after its misfire, Christie's brought the gavel down on an all-time highest price for a single painting — $142.4 million — for “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” by Francis Bacon, created as recently as 1969. The previous record, established only in 2012: $118.9 million for Edvard Munch's century-old “Scream.”

Is this art appreciation or dollar depreciation?

Are the super-rich getting antsy at how the Federal Reserve is cheapening their greenbacks?

The well-heeled tend not to over-invest in mere dollars, as in bank accounts and bonds. They gravitate to what dollars can buy — office buildings, corporate shares, gold, mansions, diamonds and art. Any of those may have no place to go but up if the dollar falls.

The Bacon “masterpiece” drew more than a half-dozen bidders, including two Asians. A Chinese magnate paid $28.2 million for another Picasso. Auctions are drawing noticeably more bidders from across the Pacific, “a more global market than ever before,” a Sotheby's official gushed.

Christie's set a record for a work by a living artist: Pennsylvania native Jeff Koons' 10-foot-tall stainless-steel “Balloon Dog” sold for $58.4 million.

But it's not the artist's take; rather, it's the “aftermarket” where the action is. Buyers and sellers all hope for a rise in value, meanwhile enjoying “dividends” of aesthetic pleasure and social prestige.

Any investment entails risk, of course. Picasso, Giacometti and Bacon might someday be “out” and their prices come tumbling.

Yet with the Fed and other central banks printing money like crazy, who would bet there won't come a day when a single objet d'art might go for $1 billion? It won't even have to be pretty.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist for Trib Total Media. Email jmarkowitz@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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