Who’s buying fine art and antiques and why?
In the second part of our summer series – how the international art market is dominated by super-rich investor-collectors
More than half the estimated €43 billion spent worldwide last year in the fine art and antiques market was accounted for by private transactions – sales through dealers, galleries, shops and fairs. But public auctions, which accounted for more than €20 billion in worldwide sales, provide the best insight into both prices and trends.
Art critics, designers and auctioneers may laud the merits of a particular painter, suggest that antique furniture is “great value” or claim that Georgian silver is a “safe investment” but, ultimately, fine art and antiques are, like all commodities, subject to the laws of supply and demand.
The major international auctions take place in London and New York where hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars can change hands in a single evening. But who is buying?
Auctioneers don’t release the names of buyers or sellers. Some items are bought by public institutions such as major public galleries, museums and universities, but most are bought by, or on behalf of, un-named collectors and investors. These often bid discreetly via an agent or by telephone or the internet.
The upper echelon of the fine art and antiques business is essentially a trade catering to the world’s super-rich whose identities can only be guessed at. Many lots are glimpsed briefly during pre-auction viewing days before disappearing back into the mansions, villas, yachts or Swiss bank vaults of the global elite, to be seen and enjoyed only by the new owners and their privileged circles.
Most of the world’s richest art collectors are relatively unknown to the general public. And that’s the way they like it. But sometimes word does leak out.
In May, Bloomberg reported that the English jeweller Laurence Graff had paid $56.1 million (€42m) at Christie’s, New York for a Roy Lichtenstein painting Woman With Flowered Hat. And why did he buy it? He reportedly said: “I’ve got a big birthday coming up and I bought it for my birthday.” He turned 75 a month later.
The Wall Street Journal reported that New York billionaire financier Leon Black was the mystery buyer who paid $119.9 million for Edvard Munch’s The Scream at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012. It was the world’s most expensive work of art ever to sell at auction.
In March this year, the New York Post reported that the Manhattan investor, Steven A Cohen, “has bought himself a gift, Picasso’s Le Rêve for $155 million (€116m)”. The paper said he had “secretly bought the masterpiece” from Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, who, while suffering from poor eyesight, had “famously put his elbow through the 1932 painting of Picasso’s mistress, creating a six-inch tear”. The price is estimated to be the highest ever paid for an artwork by a US collector. It is believed that Wynn had originally agreed to sell the painting to Cohen for $139 million (€104m) in 2006, but accidentally damaged the painting just before the sale. Apparently, the painting has been impeccably restored.