Art & Design

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And now to another slice of the economy that could be facing a downturn. November is high season for art investors. Collectors from around the world will be considering contemporary art this week at the auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's. On the block in New York are works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Mark Rothko, among others. We asked Sarah Thornton, who writes about art, how the art market is reflecting the global financial crisis.

Ms. SARAH THORNTON (Author, "Seven Days in the Art World"): The art market is a very small market, especially at the high end. So in 2007, before the subprime crisis, there might have been about 30 players buying work for over $20 million at auction. But at the moment, quite a few of them have dropped out. Certainly, the men who've made their money in hedge funds seem to have dropped out completely, as have a lot of the Russians.

MONTAGNE: One might think when you say "as have the Russians" that the art market can - pardon my - but, you know, paint a picture of sort of what's going on in kind of the high-rolling world of wealth.

Ms. THORNTON: Absolutely. The geography of the art market is something that interests me very much right now because it's been changing month to month. The Russians were major buyers in the Damien Hirst sale at Sotheby's on the 15th of September. By mid-October they seemed to have dropped out of the market altogether.

MONTAGNE: At least one group of paintings for sale at Christie's come from a well-known Wall Street executive, in fact the outgoing CEO of investment bank Lehman Brothers, Dick Fuld. Earlier this summer, his wife agreed with Christie's to put their collection of 16 drawings on the auction block, including de Kooning. Would that timing be significant?

Ms. THORNTON: Absolutely. The Fulds negotiated a guarantee in July of - in the region of, rumor has it, of $20 million for the 16 works on paper. A guarantee means that Christie's guaranteed that no matter what happens at the sale, even if none of them sell, the Fulds still get $20 million.

MONTAGNE: When you hear about people who'd been flying very high on Wall Street suddenly feeling like maybe they should sell some of their art, does that mean that more art will be coming on the market, would you expect?

Ms. THORNTON: It's funny. You know, I've talked to the auction house people this week about exactly that. And they tend to think that people will absolutely try to hold onto things until they can realize their true value, as it's seen, or at least realize more than what they were bought for. And, you know, art has emotional value and intellectual value, more than just property value. And it may be exactly at this terrible, difficult time that they really need their art to look at.

MONTAGNE: They buy art because they want the art.

Ms. THORNTON: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, one thing that fascinates me is the popularity of Francis Bacon's paintings of popes amongst billionaires. Basically, these paintings are of a very powerful man in purgatory, in like a free-fall into Hell. The popes look terrified, and they're painted in an amazing way. And the last pope to sell at auction sold in May 2007, I believe, for $52 million. They have become a kind of trophy for billionaire collectors to own. There are only 40 of them in the world, and it's interesting to track who owns them. And I look at those Francis Bacon paintings, and I think, oh my God, that must be what it's like to be a hedge fund manager right now.

MONTAGNE: Sarah Thornton writes about the business of art. Her new book is "Seven Days in the Art World."

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