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How many more $100 million ‘pictures’ can the art market absorb?

Bidding representatives speak on the phone with their clients during an auction at Sotheby’s on Wednesday in New York City. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Even for the high stakes world of fine art auctions, $1.8 billion dollars is a chunk of change. That’s the figure that changed hands during the last two weeks of auction sales, another record added to the long list that have been broken recently. The calculation comes from Kelly Crow, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal who covers the art market and who live-tweeted the phenomenon. In fact, all her tweets from Tuesday night’s record-setting auction at Christie’s were compiled into a handy and highly entertaining timeline.

It was on Tuesday night that the world witnessed the gavelling of the most expensive work of art ever sold: Francis Bacon’s “The Studies of Lucian Freud.” The triptych was purchased for a whopping $142 million, beating out the previous record of nearly $120 million for Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” set in May 2012. Christie’s also broke the record for any piece of art sold at an auction by a living artist. That artist, Jeff Koons, saw his “Balloon Dog (Orange),” sell for $58.4 million. In total Tuesday, world records were set for 10 artists and Christie’s experiences the most expensive auction ever at a total of $691.6 million.

Then, on Wednesday, Sotheby’s witnessed more records breaking. Andy Warhol’s “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster),” expected to sell for $85 million, sold for $105.4 million, an auction record for the pop artist and the second highest price ever paid at an auction for contemporary art. By the end of the night, Sotheby’s also saw its largest total ever at $394.1 million.

These massive numbers beg the question: what does it all mean? Art Beat spoke with Crow to find out what it’s like covering these multi-million dollar auctions, what makes these particular works so special and what does it mean for the future of the art market.

You were at New York auction houses for back-to-back record breaking nights — what was it like?
The thing that you gain from attending an auction that you don’t from going to a museum or a gallery or flipping through an art book on a coffee table is the electricity that comes from being in a room filled with billionaires and iconic paintings. There’s a theater and a melodrama to being present in that almost game-like atmosphere. It feels a little like a casino and sporting event and a cocktail party all in one. Very few other places in the cultural sphere match that, at least for the handful of hours that the sale is going on.

Can you put this in a context? What were the last two nights like in relation to previous auctions?
The art market has been on a real roller coaster for the last decade or so. Whenever the wealth boom really began to kick in around 2003 or 2004, the art world went from being kind of a clubby, gentile atmosphere to really being a global litmus test for world wealth. For the first time arguably in history, you no longer just had the Europeans and the Americans jockeying for the world’s most expensive western artists, but now you also have Russians and Ukrainians and folks from Dubai, China, India, Brazil all combining and fighting for a handful of the few hundred top works that come up to the market at any given year. The more competition, the higher the price — that’s very easy supply and demand economics.

The last decade has seen this flood of money come into the market and has really transformed not only the prices but also the taste because what a Chinese collector likes is not always what a Brazilian likes is not always what someone from Oklahoma likes. There’s been a real re-calibrating and shifting and settling that’s been going on for a really long time.

During the recession, there was of course a plummeting of prices, especially for the very newest artworks that came onto the marketplace, the contemporary works. Prices for Rembrandt and for Sevre porcelain and things that you might be able to pull form your granny’s attic; the prices for those didn’t change demonstrably. But the really hot trendy artists coming out of Chelsea that were selling for $5,000 last year and are now $20,000 and will next year be $300,000, that kind of heat really cooled off during the recession.

But, for those who are watching the market, the real zinger has been how quickly those artists have bounced back. Now, here we are, I would say about 6 years or so since the last market peak — the last market peak was really in 2007, when Bacon’s were again selling for $85 million and Warhol’s were selling for $70 million — and now fast forward to today and we’re cycling in again and Bacon’s are selling for $142 million and Warhol’s are selling for $100 million.

A cameraman films Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” on display at Christie’s on Oct. 14 in London. The triptych was sold at Christie’s New York evening sale of post-war and contemporary art auction on Tuesday and is now the most expensive work of art ever sold. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Some of the most talked about pieces that broke these records were Bacon’s triptych, Koon’s balloon dog, and Warhol’s car crash. What makes them so special?

I was really struck by how many of the top 10s for both houses were made in the 90s. I think collectors seem really willing to bet very big on works that were made not that long ago. So then when you scroll back and you compare the very expensive pieces, it’s almost heartening to see that Francis Bacon, at least he painted this in 1969. At least this wasn’t painted literally when I was in high school.

For folks who are not familiar with Bacon’s work, he is someone who was famous in his own lifetime in the 60s, sort of the swinging London 60s if you can think of the Austin Powers era. Francis Bacon was one of these big charismatic figures known for frequenting the bars of Soho and painting these kind of vigorous, to me very testosterone fueled, portraits of his friends and lovers. And yet, for collectors, the irony is that Bacon was a gay man who had terrible taste in men. The men that he fell for very often were thieves or just broke his heart so there’s a fragility that underlies this vigorous paintbrush work.

In this case, this particular Bacon, it’s actually a series of thre 6-foot tall paintings, so I think you could argue that it’s actually a three-for-one situation. It also has its own sort of great story involving an Italian collector who had spent the better part of 20 years searching around the world for these three paintings that had been separated by their dealer when they were originally sold in 1970 and dispersed against the artists wishes. This particular collector went back and reunited them, right? So it has kind of a nice, heartwarming afterlife. I think collectors are often paying for the story behind the work as they are for the work themselves.

Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog (Orange)” is displayed Oct. 31 at Christie’s in New York. The mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating set a net record for the the price of an artwork by a living artist at Christie’s auction on Tuesday. Photo by Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Jeff Koons’ big balloon dog reminds us about everything we loved as kids. Who doesn’t love going and getting a balloon from a clown — we don’t love the clowns, but we love the balloons. Here is this huge dog, it’s mirrored, we can see our own reflection in it and its ginormous. It’s the size of a shipping container. It’s very easy to love the item and the fact that there are only a handful of them made, that rarity also just gives it an extra sizzle. I think that’s what we’re learning, that the things that we loved as children are not that far are from the things we end up loving as adults, we just have to pay more for them.

Andy Warhol’s artwork, “Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster)” is displayed while being auctioned at Sotheby’s on Wednesday in New York City. The artwork was the big seller of the evening, sold for $105.4 million, a record for the famed artist. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

When it comes to Warhol, man, Warhol right? He is the Dow industrial average for the art market. He is traded so often and at such regularity that his price has often helped set the pace for dozens of artists in and around him. He is one of the handful of names that I think pretty much anyone in America would recognize. I think honestly you could go to any two-bit town and say “Do you know Picasso? Have you heard of Warhol?” And they will say yes. He has really ascended the ranks of household name status in a way that few other artists in America have done before or since. And so people are willing to pay a serious premium to own any significant work by him.

In 1963, he was around 35 years old and embarked on a series of paintings called “Death and Disaster.” That was the theme of these works. He would end up pulling newspaper accounts of car crashes or poisonings or other sort of people getting impaled by scary things — having a car crash. And he began to be interested in the fact that these were clearly ghastly moments in the life of the people affected and yet they were almost sort of casually broadcast on TV stations and in newspaper accounts in a way that we have become very desensitized to now. We watch these things happening in the Philippines and we’re devastated but we’re not, we’re not surprised by being able to look at violence. We’re inundated with it now.

As someone who was very taken with American culture and analyzing the iconography of that, from Hollywood starlets to soda pop cans to you name it, Warhol had a really great eye for these images that just sort of seared into our brains and reminded us that we were American or reminded us just who we were, kind of rooted us in a place and a time. In that way these Death and Disaster pictures really stand apart because they are darker and they are, so to speak, an uglier side of our culture and yet you can’t ignore it.

What does this mean for the future of auction houses and art prices?

If I were to place a bet right now, and I can’t because I can’t read the future, I might argue that this was the best it’s going get for this cycle of the market. Everything about it, from the supply of really great pictures to the frothy prices being paid for it suggest a peak. I’m not sure where we could go up from here. Now I felt a little bit that way in May but May was also, the Spring was a banner season for the auctions as well and I wondered how much further we could go and this, this set of fall sales clearly reinforced that.

So we may have one more round in us. It could carry over through February in London, especially if the stock market keeps doing as well as it’s doing and if the recession clearly seems over. I think as long as the economy keeps doing well there’s clearly an argument to be made that the art market will be doing well. But gosh I’m not sure how many $100 million pictures the market absorbs in any given season and so I think it’s still anyone’s guess if we’re at the peak.

This conversation has been lightly and clarity edited for length.

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