Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Sheer Joy Of Squandering Millions: Thoughts on the Contemporary Art Scene

Painting by local favorite Adam Swanson
This weekend I was looking at an February 1989 Art & Antiques mag I'd saved, probably because it had a John Updike feature on Diebenkorn. The inside back story, however, is the one that caught my attention. Madness, Madness the title exclaimed, the subtitle expounding, "The sheer joy of squandering millions."

The author Hugh Kenner set about to shine a light on the then-current art auction scene with it's spiraling rise in valuations that left minds reeling. He found it unbelievable that a Jasper Johns would fetch $17 million. The current (1989) record was a Van Gogh that garnered $53.9 million.

What he was was billionaire entering the art market with ample cash to bid up everything they liked. There are problems with this, however. As paintings become more valuable it becomes increasingly necessary to protect them from thievery. Instead of owning art for your home you (if you are rich) purchase a painting and place it in a vault, much like jewelry that s kept in a safe instead of a drawer.

There's another feature I'd never thought of as this process of exploding prices occurs. Suppose you bought a signed Warhol print in 1975 for ten thousand. (Just guessing here.) But after a while it is worth a million, and then later five million. What does this do to your insurance costs? And do you really want a five million dollar painting in your dining room?

"Innocence" by Ennyman 
Doctors could afford pieces that they can now longer afford to insure. The end result is that they get taken to auction... and when that piece sells for even higher it raises the valuations of everything else, which then makes more pieces too expensive to own.

The movers and shakers in this game are the billionaires, hence Mr. Kenner goes out of his way to describe how large one billion dollars is as a number. If dollar bills stack one hundred to an inch, a billion bills would be ten million inches or 158 miles. By this measure Van Gogh's Irises was acquired for a tower of cash 8.5 miles high. Small potatoes to a billionaire.

Since this article was written in 1989 art prices have risen dramatically. In May a single art auction event at Christie's resulted in somewhere around $750 dollars exchanging hands. And every other week there seems to be news of a new record being set for works be various artists. There's a lot of money floating around out there evidently. Some billionaires own football teams, others collect art.

Check out the Top 20 most expensive paintings in the world today.

For another good read, check out Ann Klefstad's fable about a painting.

Meantime, art goes on all around you. And this Saturday if you re able get out to see some local artisans' work and buy local. There's an aesthetic lift in owning a few pieces you love.

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