Inflation bulls lift art auction prices to sky
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 email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Nonprofits replace humdrum charity 5Ks with rappelling
- Steelers defense a long way from ‘greatest of all time’
- Leader Times roundup: Freeport’s Clawson returns to WPIAL golf final
- Starkey: Two amazing Pirates fans
- Number of jobs in high-tech industry outpace workers in Pittsburgh, nation
- Pirates hit 3 HRs in rout of Red Sox
- Video posted online captures Wilkinsburg child’s injuries
- Police chase ends with shooting in Bell Township
- Detectives looking into pair of shootings in Duquesne
- Steelers remain confident in ground game
- Fed not budging on rate increase