Arts & Life

Could the Art Market Bubble Burst?

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Three big auction houses — Christie's, Sotheby's and Philips de Pury — are selling works whose value they estimate at more than $900 million. Lindsay Pollock, a journalist specializing in the art market, considers whether the contemporary art bubble could burst.


Last night at Christie's, an Andy Warhol portrait of Liz Taylor was on the block. When the gavel went down, the price was $21 million, about four million short of the anticipated selling price.

(Soundbite of archived recording)


STEWART: Yes, Liz, yes. It's true. But you aren't alone; the Van Gogh didn't sell at all last week. And after you add in the auction house's commission, that portrait actually went for more than 23 million - still below the estimate though.

The Warhol, along with a Basquiat, a Rothko, a Koons - all subjects of your modern art history course - are part of a big and busy world of art auction houses this week.

We want to talk a little bit more about whether the market is overheated, under heated, whether these auctions are just…


Just right.

STEWART: …fantastic theater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Lindsay Pollock is a journalist specializing in the art market. You can read her work on, an art news magazine. And, Lindsay, you are a trooper for being here in the studio this morning because you were at an auction last night.

Ms. LINDSAY POLLOCK (Journalist, Good morning. I was; it's true. It was long.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Was it fun? Are they fun? Are they interesting? Are they - I mean, as a journalist, I know you have to kind of detach for a little bit, but just as a spectator?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, you know, I mean, I think they are fun. We journalists get to stand, of course, so that makes it little less fun than the seated people. But - and they are continuing to be longer and longer - these auctions. Last night's sale was 67 lots. The night before, I covered an auction at Christie's, 71 lots. Last week, we had 91-lot auction.

You know, back in the day, when the art market wasn't so - to your question - overheated they were no more than 60 lots. I mean, at a certain point, it's like a play. I wish they'd just, like, cut off a little bit of that segment.


Ms. POLLOCK: But, no, they're very, very good theatre. It's entertaining. You get lots of people watching, lots of crazy outfits, you know, and big, big crazy prices.

STEWART: You mentioned all these different lots. Just a little bit of research, about 1,800 - almost 1,900 art lots have been or will be up for auction during this course of this nine days - from November 6th to November 15th. What is it about this time of year that's special or particularly interesting that it's art-o-rama?

Ms. POLLOCK: That's a good term.

Twice a year - May and November are the big contemporary and impressionist sales. And because the art world is very secretive and one really doesn't know what's selling most of the time behind close doors on Madison Avenue or in Chelsea, this is the opportunity for the world to see what's the health and the wealth of the art world because these are public prices.

You know, there's theoretical transparency in the auction room, so everybody is looking to see, you know, is the ultimate luxury object selling for more than ever. What's this - how does this relate to the economy?

So all eyes right now - they really load it up. Two billion dollars was the projection for the two weeks, which is really a phenomenal huge number to put in perspective.


Ms. POLLOCK: One billion alone this week is a high projection. That's a lot.

STEWART: Unbelievable. You mentioned the ultimate high luxury item. Who is buying this stuff? And are they - I mean, we know that - for example, Hugh Grant.


STEWART: The celebrity person who was selling this Warhol.

Ms. POLLOCK: So wisely.

STEWART: So are they celebrity buyers? Are they just rich Saudi princes? Who buys this stuff?

Ms. POLLOCK: You know, to - okay, I don't think a lot of them are celebrities because there's not a big art market going on in L.A.


Ms. POLLOCK: And when you talk to dealers in L.A, they seem to think that people out there in the West Coast, or celebrities, they don't necessarily buy a lot of art. It seems to be really a lot of people from the financial community. I work for Bloomberg News, so I'm aware that there are a lot of people who are in - on Wall Street, people who are entrepreneurs, a lot of people in real estate.

Jerry Speyer - I noticed his name and the spelling - he's a big art collector. There are a number of people like that who are in more risk-taking fields who really like to gamble in contemporary art.

BURBANK: Are they gambling or is it an investment or is it because they love Jeff Koons?

Ms. POLLOCK: Love Jeff Koons. You know, I think, historically, you know, the art world was driven by collectors who really were people at a stage in their life where they fell in love with in a particular aesthetic, a certain group of artists. And it really was prices weren't at the level they're at today. So it could really be just about sort of some kind of personal connection, loving this, loving - meeting the artist, loving - having - learning about the art.

Today, I do think there is sort of a new breed of collector that has a more speculative mission because there's been such a huge exponential increase in the last five years. So, you know, it's hard to discern who's buying for speculation and who's buying for love. There were pieces last night that people took hold of and last year and are now selling. Like the Jeff Koons' gigantic diamond ring which…

STEWART: I love this one…

Ms. POLLOCK: Yeah.

STEWART: …because the description of this giant - gigantic ring and Jeff Koons is he is a man who is waging a one man war on taste.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The description of this piece - I have to read this from the brochure about this piece. This is what an imaginary blue diamond should be. It is an almost comic strip archetype, a stereotype, a cliche that has burst into monumental existence in our world, speaking of wealth and luxury and awe in an open, sincere and deliberately uncritical manner.

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, yeah.

STEWART: Did that help sell that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: And how much did it get for?

Ms. POLLOCK: You know what, not really. It was estimated, you know, the estimates - the - some of the estimates they don't publish, so they're a little moving targets. This one was around, I think, 12 to 20 million, which is a huge spread. There was really very little interest in Mr. Koons' diamond last night. And in fact, it was bought back by Larry Gagosian, who happened to be…


Ms. POLLOCK: …the dealer who had sold it. And I don't want necessarily say this is the case of that.

BURBANK: Sold it last year.

Ms. POLLOCK: Sold it last year, exactly. So sometimes dealers - and I'm not saying this was the case this time - in particular and perhaps protect their artists by putting in a bid. They don't want their artist's work to…

STEWART: Be devalued.

Ms. POLLOCK: …be devalued.


Ms. POLLOCK: And tonight, we have a huge Koons selling at Sothesby's - a giant hanging heart, which is quite spectacular. It's hot pink. It's something that will speak to the new money. You know, I think it will do better than the diamond ring.

STEWART: Is the market soft for contemporary art right now?



Ms. POLLOCK: I mean, last night really proved that there's an unbridled appetite for the named - the well known artists. We're talking about a tiny sliver of the contemporary artists out there working who are achieving these prices. I mean, Richard Prince, last night, sold for upwards of $6 million.

STEWART: Oh, my gosh.

Ms. POLLOCK: People thought two to three was outrageous or a very bold estimate. So people were shocked. I mean, there is a lot of appetite for this.

STEWART: What about the Mark Rothko? A lot of people are familiar with his work.

Ms. POLLOCK: People are familiar with it. In the spring, people might recall David Rockefeller sold a Rothko for a then shocking 71 million. Last night, there were about five of them up at Christie's. One of them was the top lot of the night, selling for $34 million. There are lots of these out there - these big, beautiful Rothkos. It's not, you know, something that's extraordinary rare. So these prices are pretty amazing.

STEWART: Is there one artist or one particular piece of work which is the one that everybody is waiting to go up for auction in the next week?

Ms. POLLOCK: I think, well, people look for sort of Bellwether pieces. And tonight, it will be the big hanging heart Koons people are watching.

STEWART: Okay, Koons.

Ms. POLLOCK: And also a Francis Bacon painting of a bullfight, which is also among the most expensive pieces. And people love to see how much depth there is in the bidding. Is there - are there people who seem to be bidding from Asia and from Russia and from, you know, all over the world to kind of reflect the buoyant market or is it thin.

STEWART: Let's talk about the Liz. We'll finish up talking about the Warhol Liz - one of the - it was called the "Colored Liz." It's sort of a turquoise. Was this considered to be one of his better paintings or just one of the ones, oh, he tossed off?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, you know, it depends on who you talk to.

STEWART: For $21 million?

Ms. POLLOCK: Christie's will tell you it's one his most important versions of the 13 Liz's that he made.

STEWART: All right. What does the journalist tell me in the room?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, people felt it wasn't one of his most spectacular Liz's he did.

(Soundbite of archived recording)


Ms. POLLOCK: Sorry, Liz.


STEWART: Sorry, Liz.

BURBANK: Does anybody ever, like, actually, like, in the commercials or in the, you know, comedy movies accidentally buy, like, a hundred million dollar piece of art? Has it ever happened?

Ms. POLLOCK: You know, if they do, the auction houses are so smooth, they would cover it up.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POLLOCK: Because I'm sure there are people who bid and can't pay their bills. Because when I see things that are sold and then weeks later and I'm at the house and the painting is still on the wall, and I think what's going on?

STEWART: Lindsay Pollock is a journalist specializing in the art market. You can read her work on, an art news magazine. Again, a trooper. Thank you so much for coming into the studio after what was a late but an exciting night

BURBANK: We did let you sit down, though, for the whole interview with us.

Ms. POLLOCK: Thank you.

BURBANK: Very nice.

STEWART: You know, I almost actually at an auction once in a bar and I almost ended up buying this really hideously, ugly, yellow velvet couch because the fellow I was with at the time did one of those, like, I'm just going to move my hand and see if they think it's a bid and they did.


STEWART: Fifty bucks. I told him…

BURBANK: I can't go in one of those places.

STEWART: …if that couch comes home…

BURBANK: I have, like, I have an involuntarily physical tick in those situations. Like, if I start thinking about not scratching my nose, I'll totally do it.

STEWART: You're going to do it.

BURBANK: So and speaking of people who would not be able to foot the bill, I would not.

Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan, she's been getting a lot of attention because of what the current president of Pakistan, Musharraf, has been doing. So if he is the bad guy, end quote, is she the good guy? Or good lady? I don't know. We're going to find out a little bit more about Benazir Bhutto, coming up.

STEWART: Also, another edition of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT feature Make Me Care. Okay, several new species of whales have been discovered recently. But apparently, nobody cares that much to report about it. We're going to talk to an expert in the field who tells us why we should give a dang. It's coming up.

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