While the world lurches deeper into financial crisis, the art market goes from strength to strength. Will there be any end to its current boom?by Ben Lewis / July 26, 2008 / Leave a comment
I’ve been filming at the Basel art fair, where the contemporary art world has been celebrating the arrival of two new clients, both of whom circulated round the fair in its opening hours. There are few industries in which the addition of two customers would be considered a sign that a market was thriving, yet dealers positively clapped their hands and thanked God when Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Saud al-Thani, from the Qatari royal family, turned up at their booths in Switzerland. Suddenly the billions of losses on Wall Street, the collapse of the housing market and the second oil shock seemed like news in brief.
Admittedly, Abramovich and al-Thani are not your average client base. Abramovich has a fortune estimated at almost $12bn. He bought a Lucien Freud painting for $33m and a Francis Bacon triptych for $86m at the Sotheby’s auction in New York in May—both wonderful works of art. Al-Thani has spent millions over the past few years buying Islamic art, and his resources are more or less infinite. But for the art dealers, there is something particularly significant about the profiles of these two clients—they’re newbies! Abramovich’s auction wins were, apparently, his first forays into contemporary art. His partner Daria Zhukova is opening a new contemporary art centre in Moscow in a stunning former train station this year. The Qataris want to build up a collection of contemporary art to house in their new museum, and last year, as the Art Newspaper recently revealed, they spent a record $10m on one of Damien Hirst’s colourful pill cabinets and probably $70m on a Rothko. In other words, the Qataris and Abramovichs have only just started and are going to be spending a whole lot more. For the art world at least, “the nice decade,” as the governor of the Bank of England has called it, is not yet over.
Beyond their own purchasing power, the knock-on effect of these new entrants is tremendous, thanks to the distinct properties of today’s contemporary art market. For the last ten years, the rise of interest in and the rise in the value of contemporary art have been led by record-breaking auction house prices—like those for Richard Prince’s “nurse” paintings, which you could buy in 2001 for $60,000 and now cost $6m, or those big Bacons which cost $10m in 2001 and now cost $80m. These huge hikes have fuelled the…