Why Art Is (Still) More Expensive Than Ever Art writer Lindsay Pollock says giant sales at this week's New York art auctions suggest this is an art market climbing ever higher in price, regardless of that worldwide credit crunch.
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Why Art Is (Still) More Expensive Than Ever

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Why Art Is (Still) More Expensive Than Ever

Why Art Is (Still) More Expensive Than Ever

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Fifty-four works of art sold for a combined 348 million dollars last night at Christie's Auction House in New York. It was a record night, with a Mark Rothko going for 50 million and a Lucian Freud painting going for over 33 million. Note, that is the most ever paid for a work by a living artist. Lindsay Pollack, who's also a living artist, covers the art beat for Bloomberg News. She was at the auctions here in New York City last night. Lindsay, hi.

Ms. LINDSAY POLLACK (Art Reporter, Bloomberg News): Hi. Good morning.

PESCA: So, the majority of the people doing the buying weren't Middle Eastern sultans. They weren't Russian oil and gas magnates. They were U.S. buyers. Was that a surprise?

Ms. POLLACK: I think that was a surprise. You know, last week we had the impressionist and modern art auctions and we had a dominance by European bidders, you know, the weak dollar, made sense. Last night, the end of the sale, they announced the American buyers took away 70 percent and they said people were really surprised. They thought that people would be deterred by our currency, but evidently contemporary art is super popular with American uber-rich and they were still ready to spend.

PESCA: Now, I've been to Christie's a couple of times. I wouldn't imagine the vibe would be a chant of USA going out throughout the auction house as they announced that, but is there some patriotism at stake? Are art collectors happy that these works stayed in the U.S.?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, that's really a good question, especially now, because, you know, there've been reports recently that a lot of the big pictures from last May - a big Rothko that sold for 72 million - went to Qatar. So, you know, the Middle East is snapping up. They've got all this cash, a lot of important works, as does Dubai. So there is a certain sense, I think, of hometown pride that we're able to afford our own, you know, local talent treasures. But you know, it's kind of a very cool audience. They don't - there's very sparse applause going on.

PESCA: Yeah, yeah. The - whatever USA or patriotism would be best expressed in Jasper Johns' flag painting.

Ms. POLLOCK: Yes, I didn't see anyone wearing a flag on their lapel, for example.

PESCA: Yeah, yes.

Ms. POLLOCK: On their Prada suit.

PESCA: Let's talk about the works. This Freud, it is a striking picture, official name, "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping." Everyone calls the woman pictured Big Sue. She's a real woman, Sue Tilley. She's an English civil servant. Why the high price for Sue?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, you know, people who are dealers say it really is a masterpiece. I mean, Freud was out of fashion for a long time. People thought he was very, you know, passe with his figurative art when everybody was going abstract. And he continued and continued to focus on his painting and - of the human body. His work has been rediscovered in the last, you know, few years, and recently at auction, he's been getting big prices. He's been recognized now as a master and obviously, you know, I asked the Christie's folks, was this a hard painting to sell? This 280-pound woman, for someone to have on their wall...


Ms. POLLOCK: And they said, yeah, some people said it's a masterpiece, but I wouldn't want to buy it, you know? But they found just two bidders last night who were willing to go to the mat, and that's all it takes in an auction.

PESCA: Well, it's surprising to me. I know that a Rothko, I mean, if you have the right colors in the room and the painting that sold last night was a red and yellow. So you could have a couch that matches it. But just to have...

Ms. POLLOCK: Frightening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Yeah. Just to have an abstract painting on the room, I guess, doesn't say much, but an actual human being would be more off-putting than a series of, you know, color splashes or lines. That says...

Ms. POLLOCK: Yeah, you know...

PESCA: Something about the market.

Ms. POLLOCK: I think that's true. I mean, that - the color paintings - Rothko's almost become, like, a brand. They're very recognizable, like a Warhol. You know when you see those floating blobs of color, you've got a Rothko. And now, you know, it's like 50 million dollars. So if you are this up-and-coming guy in Russia, you know, it's a really a great thing to hang on your wall. Having this giant, you know, English civil servant, you know, is a little bit more of a connoisseur's type picture, I think.

PESCA: Right, although it does say, hey, I spent 33 million dollars on a painting, or whatever...

Ms. POLLOCK: True.

PESCA: Whatever it was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You know what fascinates me is this house, this actual house in Palm Springs that was up for auction. If I buy it, can I live in it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POLLOCK: Yeah, but you should probably wear booties if you spent 16-point-whatever million dollars on it. You know, it's a - it was renovated to pristine condition. It's got a great big pool. You could certainly live in it, but, you know, they got a really big price. Realtors in the area said it would be worth - if it weren't at auction, you know, if they were trying to market it - maybe eight million dollars. So it got almost double.

MARTIN: This...

PESCA: I - go ahead.


What's so special about it?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, it's very important if you're interested in architecture and design history. The architect, Neutra, was very important. This was a significant house, the Kaufmann house, was done for an important person who commissioned important homes. So if you're interested in mid-century design, you know, this is really, like, you know, a major Picasso, effectively. And Christie's was very smart at, I think, cross-marketing it with contemporary art and putting it into that context. Because, hell, you know, 16 million dollar painting, you know, there were very few last night. For a whole house, it seems like a bargain.

PESCA: Yeah, and Kaufmann, he was the guy who owned Fallingwater.

Ms. POLLOCK: Indeed.

PESCA: Right, right.

Ms. POLLOCK: So he's kind of a big name.

PESCA: His name on a house, the architect, and what I'm very fascinated about is a lot of times the collectors of these works are speculators, and they're trying to make a profit. Some are collectors, but the couple who saw the house and knew about the house, they put a lot of time and effort and thought into it, and without them, this house would probably, you know, just be sold in the local Palm Springs real-estate market. What can you tell me about them?

Ms. POLLOCK: That's right. Well, you know, they're divorcing, first of all, which is why a lot of stuff comes to auction, the three Ds, death, divorce, and disaster. But you know, so I don't know if they intended to flip it, like a lot of people buy an art - a painting and then flip it for much more. They did only pay around 1.5 million for this house, but people weren't really buying these kind of architectural gems, especially in bad condition like this was.

People would just buy them and tear them down and build the McMansion. So they did have vision. You know, they did have good timing. And they had the good fortune to come on to a wave right now of real appreciation for these kind of architectural homes. There's another one coming up, I think it's next week, Louis Kahn's house that he did for Wharton Esherick. Wright Auction House in Chicago is selling it, I think, in the three-million-dollar range.

PESCA: This...

Ms. POLLOCK: It's a one-bedroom house.

PESCA: This house in Palm Springs, Barry Manilow once lived there.


PESCA: Before the Harrises who are the couple that restored it, someone had put up a huge air conditioner and it just blocked - and they added rooms to it. They weren't treating it as a work of art, and it's obviously, just from a price perspective, smart, too.


PESCA: One guy that I'm really into is Richard Prince and his - some of his series of "Nurse Paintings" sold for a lot of money. What's so great about them?

Ms. POLLOCK: You can say that again. You know, the "Nurse Paintings" are just a phenomenon, you know, when they were sold in 2002 at the - at Barbara Gladstone Gallery, you know, she was charging around 100,000. You know, the fact that they're selling for upwards of six million dollars now, it kind of blows your mind.

PESCA: And that's five years ago, wow.

Ms. POLLOCK: I know, what a great return! It's like...

PESCA: Wow, yeah.

Ms. POLLOCK: Google stock. I don't even know, probably outperforms - you know, he's become a real - real popular with the hedge-fund guys. You know, if you went to the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim, you saw Steve Cohen's name on the wall. These people are willing to spend - there was a lot of bidding on this man-crazy "Nurse Painting." You know, doesn't do it for me, it's - you know, maybe it does it for guys more than girls, but it's...

PESCA: It's campy.

Ms. POLLOCK: It's highly campy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POLLOCK: He scans, you know, book covers.

PESCA: Yeah. And the guy who was - am I getting this right? The guy who was selling it was the TV producer Douglas Cramer?

Ms. POLLOCK: Yeah, I think he did "Dynasty" and...

PESCA: And "Love Boat."

Ms. POLLOCK: "Love Boat," you know...

PESCA: He started off with "Star Trek."


PESCA: So he's got the legit credit, and then he got campy and - but this is great. If you want your own Richard Prince in your home, the best way to do it is go out and buy the Sonic Youth album, "Sonic Nurse," because the cover of that is one of these - I don't think it was in the series, but it's one of these nurses.

Ms. POLLOCK: Much cheaper, and you can actually go on to eBay and look and you can get some of these book covers. I shouldn't even say it, because now the price is going to go up, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You should've been selling them before you came into the studio today.

Ms. POLLOCK: I wish.

PESCA: Well, there's another big auction at Christie's today. Is that right?

Ms. POLLOCK: Sotheby's.

PESCA: Oh, Sotheby's...

Ms. POLLOCK: Yeah, across the...

PESCA: So what's going on with that one?

Ms. POLLOCK: Well, they have, as well, a major Rothko, might bring 40 - you know, upwards of 40 million dollars, but their major, major trophy picture is a triptych, you know, three-part painting, by Francis Bacon, and they've estimated it in the region of 70 million dollars. And if it sells for in the region of 70 million dollars, it has the potential to become the most expensive piece of contemporary art sold at auction. So, you know, night after night, it's like record, record, record.

PESCA: If I know anything about Bacon, and I do...

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: No, not really. But wouldn't you put him in the camp, like, the Freud, maybe a little tough to hang in the house?

Ms. POLLOCK: That's a very good point. It's vultures gnawing on a headless guy's body, you know...

PESCA: I didn't even know that but this is what the guy's drawn to, yeah.

Ms. POLLOCK: It's blood, you know, it's not, like, your Marilyn Warhol. It's a little tougher of a picture. But last season, you know, we continued to see Bacons bringing in 50 million, season after season. There seems to be a real hunger for this. There was a report that the Qatar royal family bought one for the region of 50 last year. So, maybe Dubai will want this one to one-up them.

PESCA: And my last question is about the broader implications. Some people are looking at this as some sort of overall economic indicator. Maybe it says something, at least, about one sector of our society. Do you think that's a fair enough point? Or are the art collectors kind of sui generis?

Ms. POLLOCK: Hm. That's a good question. I mean, everybody was kind of shaking their heads and wondering last night, you know, why is the art market seemingly insulated from all the financial turmoil we read about every day? You know, the best answers I got in the room were, number one, these people are so rich it doesn't even matter, you know, A. And B, this is the broadest category at auction, meaning there's people all over the world that want this stuff. It's going to stay afloat, you know, much longer.

PESCA: All right. Lindsey Pollock covers the art beat for Bloomberg News. Thanks very much, Lindsey.

Ms. POLLOCK: Thank you.

MARTIN: Thanks, Lindsey.

Ms. POLLOCK: Thanks.

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