MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW.
Francis Bacon, $142.4 million; Andy Warhol, $105 million; a pink diamond, $83 million; the art world appetite for sky-high auctions, limitless. Or at least that's the way it feels after a spate of record-breaking sales, so what's behind the fine art frenzy? Peter Coy is economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek and he's with us now. Hi, there, Peter.
PETER COY, BYLINE: Hi, how are you?
CHAKRABARTI: I'm doing well. So record sales, as we just mentioned, in recent auctions, who's buying up all these art?
COY: First of all, thank you for introducing me as an economics editor rather than art critic because...
COY: ...that's definitely what I am. I mean, it's hard to fathom, isn't it? I mean, I look at what people say about Francis Bacon's art, and I look at the art, and it gets descriptive. It's like dark, bleak, violent, nihilistic, despairing - is just not the kind of thing you want to wake up to in the morning or look at over dinner or, you know, have in your living room when you have guests over.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, clearly, you're not a man who has $142.4 million to spare...
COY: That is also true.
CHAKRABARTI: ...because they think differently.
COY: That is also - and I'm also not one of the tastemakers who tend to be a lot poorer, but kind of lead the collectors around by their noses...
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, neither hipster at note.
COY: ...by saying what is...
COY: ...what is art and what is not. I believe - and I think I could probably do an experiment to test this - that the people who buy these for all that kind of money would walk right past these works of art if they're propped up next to a garbage can on the curb.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, I've - I think I've seen an episode or two of "Antiques Roadshow" where that's exactly what happened, but that's a different story.
COY: It is.
CHAKRABARTI: But I'm wondering, so, I mean, the art world has always had its very high-end auctions.
CHAKRABARTI: It's just it seems like the numbers in terms of the sale prices we're seeing now are really truly mind-boggling. Is it like - are people looking at these are those who can afford them looking at them as investments or are they collectors or what's going on here?
COY: These are people looking at them as investments. They might call themselves collectors and, you know, in the dream, what's really the difference? But it's - I believe it's people who are holding them for their public value rather than their private value. Public being, you know, what you think that you can resell it for someday. Private being, hey, you don't care what anybody else likes about it. It's your taste and you'll buy it.
It's the public value that's predominating here. There are two things going on. One is rising tide of wealth, the super wealthy, the other is the winner-take-all phenomenon, which says that certain works get all the bids and others get largely ignored.
CHAKRABARTI: Right. So I have heard that in the past, for example, high-end fine art auctions kind of tell you where the money is around the world.
CHAKRABARTI: As wealth in China has gone up...
COY: That's true.
CHAKRABARTI: ...Chinese art is, you know, going through the roof. In the '80s, we saw a lot of purchasing coming out of the Middle East with all the oil wealth. Is there any - do we - I mean, do we even know who the buyers are right now and if that tells us anything about the, you know, where the money is around the world?
COY: I don't know if we've identified the buyers in a lot of these cases. You know, the second biggest one, the Andy Warhol piece, have been seen in public only once in the last 26 years. So sometimes these things get - they get shown on Christie's or Sotheby's, they get taken off the easel and they just don't get seen again. But to answer your question, Americans, Chinese coming on strong, Middle East Gulf well oil wealth, just were you would expect it, these are the buyers.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. When the last, literally, 10 seconds we have, to me, the real winner, the auction houses because don't they take a big cut here every time a big sale goes through?
COY: Well, Sotheby's and Christie's...
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Yeah.
COY: ...because they charge two ways. They charge the seller and then they charge the buyer 15 percent in one side, another 15 percent on the other.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. It just goes to show the money is always where the middleman is. Peter Coy, economics editor and not art critic for Bloomberg Businessweek. Thanks so much, Peter.
COY: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
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