Million, schmillion

YEAR IN VISUAL ART: What to make of 2013's big-ticket art sales

Jeff Koons' 'Balloon Dog (Orange)' set a world record this year when it sold for $58,405,000.

YEAR IN VISUAL ART One of the art world's largest trends for 2013 culminated in November, at Christie's record-breaking contemporary art auctions that saw the most money ever paid for an artwork (Francis Bacon, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, $142 million) and the most ever for an artwork by a living artist (Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Orange), $58 million). The general outrage that followed for once united Joe Shmoe and the art blogosphere in reactions that ranged from disdain to histrionics. Hating rich people and their spending, it turns out, is something that we can all really get behind.

It was a bit surprising, really, to read such astonished responses from professed art world insiders, most of which gave voice to disgust and outrage at the amoral caprice and soulless gluttony of various, shameless one percenters plunking down ungodly sums of money on balloon dogs and other decadent, trashy, luxury stuff that clearly anybody's kid could dream up. Or something like that.

Now that the dust has settled a little, it's worth revisiting those sales without the preaching, and figure out what they mean for the art world going into 2014. A couple observations follow.

First, and contrary to universal opinion, as far as I can tell these artworks sold on the cheap. My math: the top ten collectors of art in 2013 are worth more than $10 billion each on average. At the November evening session at Christie's, the average sale price for a work of art was just shy of $11 million. Those numbers make my head spin, so let's scale down to you-and-me bucks: The wealthiest and most active collectors were paying mere fractions of their net worth, on average, for the artworks. Maybe a tenth of a percent. If you or I put down that much of our net worth, we'd be talking somewhere between, say, a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars. In other words, a completely reasonable amount of money — cheap, even. About the pricing you'd expect for an emerging artist's work.

Looking at the money in scale, there are actually very few buyers at the top willing to splurge heavily on individual works of art. If, as ARTnews reported in its 2013 summer issue, there are 100 collectors in the world willing to throw down more than $50 million on art, it's a tiny number of people and a very modest amount for a billionaire. The high end of the art market is pretty conservative considering who's playing in that game. In fact, if rumors are true and Russian billionaire Roman Abromavich is the buyer for Three Studies of Lucian Freud, then he spent about 1.4 percent of his net worth on the paintings, something between the price of a nice sofa and a car, in you-and-me terms.

Second, these purchases weren't speculative or the result of a bubble. The runaway consolidation of global wealth among the one percent is accelerating. If their spending on luxury items like blue chip art keeps any kind of pace with their expanding wealth, then the prices at the top tier should be racing higher every year. These people are astronomically rich. They should be putting down lots of money on art.

And it's not all balloon dogs and pill paintings, either. Looking back over the year, you notice record-breaking investments in the work of young and talented artists, among them former Bay Area artist Tauba Auerbach, whose six works sold in June for a combined $1.34 million, as well as Cecily Brown, Mark Grotjahn, Julie Mehretu, Tara Donovan, and others.

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