RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
In a bearish economy, we're in the midst of a very bullish art market. The record for a Claude Monet painting was shattered at Christie's in London yesterday when one of his water lilies paintings sold for more than $80 million. Last month, a work by Lucien Freud fetched more than $33 million - the most paid for a work by a living artist. And a Francis Bacon triptych went for more than $86 million. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The $33 million paid for the work by Lucien Freud was the most paid for such a work AT AUCTION. The Jasper Johns painting "False Start" sold for $80 million in 2006.]
NPR's Elizabeth Blair paid a visit to a collector.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: When you step off the elevator to Aaron Levine's law office, the first thing you see is art - 10 large prints bursting with color, pastel and fluorescent pinks and yellows. On closer inspection, you see that at the center of each print is an electric chair.
Mr. AARON LEVINE (Attorney): People don't know that they're Andy Warhols, and when they ask I tell them these are clients whose cases I lost.
BLAIR: His wry sense of humor aside, Aaron Levine is a trial lawyer who has successfully sued pharmaceutical companies for the past four decades. In his spare time, he and his wife are serious collectors. Works by Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and dozens of other established artists grace the walls - and that's just his office.
Aaron Levine says the economic downturn has not affected his collecting, and he doesn't think he's alone. He went to Art Basel, the big art fair in Switzerland earlier this month.
Mr. LEVINE: I don't see from my recent trip any lessening in the ferociousness of the contemporary art collector, nor their pocketbook.
BLAIR: But he did notice one difference.
Mr. LEVINE: In Basel, it used to be one-third Americans, and now it's about 10 percent Americans.
BLAIR: One reason could be the weak dollar. The other: new wealth overseas. It seems that a very small group of ultra-rich buyers is keeping the high-end art market alive, says Josh Baer, a private dealer, who writes the arts industry blog "The Baer Faxt." He says the new collectors are from Russia, Asia, India and other places.
Mr. JOSH BAER (Private Dealer, Blogger): Five or 10 years ago, they had nothing on their walls. The American collectors, the major ones, have been collecting for 20, 30, 40 years. So they already have a number of masterworks themselves, so they're in less of a hurry to need to buy one more.
BLAIR: Take the Russian billionaire art lover Roman Abramovich. He bought both the Lucien Freud and the Francis Bacon at auction last month for about $120 million. In other words, even though fewer people are bidding, those who are have enough money to drive prices way up. And while that's gotten a lot of attention, it is not the whole story.
The art market is going in two directions. Ian Peck, president of the Art Capital Group, says the auction houses hold separate sales based on price.
Mr. IAN PECK (President, Art Capital Group): The part one sales are million-dollar-plus works, and the part two sales are anywhere from a few thousand up to a million, let's say. And if you compare the two, there's much, much greater weakness in the part two.
BLAIR: So, the high end is through the roof and the market for everything else is softening. The economy is also affecting how purchases are made. Peck's company, the Art Capital Group, lends money to people who want to buy art. They use the artwork itself as collateral for the loan. Peck says he's seen a 30 percent increase in the number of loan applications from this time last year.
Mr. PECK: One of the reasons we attribute is the economy, and that some people need liquidity to cover other investments that they have that may not be doing so well.
BLAIR: Of course, these are people who really aren't hurting financially. So what does this all mean for average art lovers who get their art fix from museums? Jonathan Fineberg is an art history professor at the University of Illinois.
Professor JONATHAN FINEBERG (Art History, University of Illinois): Museums can no longer afford to buy the great works of art that should be available to the public because they've been consistently outbid by private individuals who are making huge amounts of money in the corporate world.
BLAIR: But Fineberg says you can't paint this with one stroke. There are many excellent private collectors who routinely lend to public museums.
The public good, though, are hardly on the minds of folks at Sotheby's and Christie's. Both are holding auctions in Paris and London this week, and there's no sign that the art market bubble is ready to burst.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
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