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1.08.2010

Guess what: the contemporary art market is...a market!

I didn't say it, Don Thompson said it... (I mentioned him in an earlier post. Just to remind you: the title of his book is THE $12 MILLION STUFFED SHARK, published by Aurum Press, 2008). Of course, he's an economist and not an art critic: he's bound to see the art market in purely economic terms. But he took a couple of years to research it, he spoke to everybody that counts and he makes a pretty convincing case.

If you're interested in contemporary art, this is a read you shouldn't miss!

What I found most surprising is how exiguous this market really is: in the sense that, according to Don Thompson, major players are really FEW. There are, he says, about two dozen superstar "branded dealers", about as many "branded collectors", including Charles Saatchi who's a little bit of both. Then there are two major auction houses (Christie's and Sotheby's) plus a couple of minor ones (Philips de Pury and Bonhams international). What else? There are three or four major art fairs that are mostly a recent phenomenon like Art Basel, Miami Basel, London's Frieze and now Maastricht. Art fairs are largely the preserve of dealers. And, of course, there's a handful of major Museums like the Modern Tate in London, the Guggenhein and MOMA in New York, and I would add Beaubourg in Paris. These are the preserve of art curators. Big cultural events like the Venice Biennale that have been around for a long time are probably better classified as belonging to the world of art curators than that of art fairs.

So you really have just three categories of "branded players" whose decisions are watched by the world press and would-be collectors/new art buyers: (i) superstar dealers,(ii) major auction houses and (iii) "branded" collectors - those in the public eye. These are the people who make and break artists.

What about art critics?

It seems that art critics loudly complain that they're not heard, and as Thompson put it: "dealers, auction house specialists and collectors insist that critics have little influence on the contemporary art world - not on artists'success and certainly not on prices" (p.227).And apparently this is so in every art capital around the world with one exception: in New York, "it is gospel in the art community that a highly favourable review in the New York Times will sell out a show" (p.229).

Some of Thomson's comments are really damning: on p.229, he tells us that critics "compete to be hired full time by editors, to have their free-lance writing published, or to win approval from university tenure committees"; on p.230, he tells us that critics are paid in whole or in part by the artist's dealers and that "the dealer in effect commissions the review, and chooses a critic who is likely to offer favourable comments".

What, are we to believe that contemporary art critics are not independant?? Afraid so. Yeah, welcome to the real world, baby!

Auction houses of course do the same in their glossy sales catalogues. Indeed, in Thompson's opinion, auction houses (the two big ones especially) are the REAL players in the contemporary art game. He doesn't exactly say that but he sure implies it when he writes: "the market is a much better predictor than the critic" (p.231), In short, prices are a much better guide to an artist's value than art critics. And prices are largely set by how auctions go. That's only logical: their sales are public while dealers's sales tend to be naturally opaque. By definition. True, a lot of collectors prefer it that way. And the auction houses know this too: when they engage in "private sales", which they do increasingly often, they compete directly with dealers. But all this doesn't change the name of the game: all prices that become reference prices in private deals have been set at public auctions.

Where does that leave Art with a capital A?
How can an "emerging artist" emerge?

This is where Thompson's book is not very useful.

He argues that to count as a major contemporary artist you have to be a "branded artist". Fair enough. So how do you become "branded"? He comes up with a short list of 25 branded artists that he has culled from different sources (of course not everyone he met could agree on the list). These are mainly the Young British Artists promoted by Saatchi in sensational shows (aptly called "Sensation"), the likes of Damien Hirst and Emin Tracey. Plus blue chip names like Jeff Koons, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Takashi Murakami, Willem de Kooning, Lucien Freud etc

So what did they do to emerge and become "branded"? Hey, they must have done something real special that others haven't been able to come up with! It's always a challenge to stand out in any crowd, and particularly in a huge crowd like this one. Thompson estimates that in London alone there are some 80,000 artists walking around with only 75 that are "superstar artists with a seven-figure income" (p.64)

75 out of 80,000? Less than one tenth of one percent: that's pretty depressing...

So how can you make it to the top of the pyramid? Hard, hard. You need to KICK people in the eyes - or ears (yes, I literally mean "ears": there are collectors who buy works from their trusted dealers sight unseen). And those who know how best to "kick" come from the advertising world: Mr. Saatchi is an emblematic example of what I am talking about. He has brilliantly applied to the art market the talents he had previously displayed in creating the biggest, most successful advertising agency in the world. It is no coincidence that the most famous contemporary art collector is also an advertising tycoon.

In fact, reading Thompson's book, you get the distinct impression that SHOCK VALUE is what "brands" an artist. Damien Hirst, the creator of the shark in formaldehyde whose decaying, stuffed carcass sold for $12 million, is an obvious case in point. And Thompson goes through many more examples that all come down to one concept: shock value. When it's high, you've made it. And shock value has strictly nothing to do with either Beauty or Pleasure, the traditional features of Art. Shock value is all about publicity...

Now is an art market based on "shock value" a market destined to fail over the long run? If you think so because it has nothing to do with Art, well, you're wrong! There is no reason at all why such a market should fail. It is held up by other things, mainly a commercial mentality - it's a market, remember! - and new collectors keep coming to it, for the usual reasons: investment AND status. There are new billionaires every year, and the current figure is 817 with only 360 Americans: the rest are Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern...

And of course, right below the one billion cut-off point, there are thousands of new millionaires as well - the co-called "rich". According to Wikipedia, there are currently over 10 million people around the globe classified as U.S. dollar millionaires. Doing a quick back of the envelope calculation, one may assume that about 20 percent of these have enough financial muscle to compete with billionaires at any auction of contemporary art (that's 200,000). Of these, some 20 percent might be actively interested in art. That works out to about 40,000 people around the world that may be into the contemporary art market. That makes it a surprisingly SMALL market... Not so surprising perhaps if you think of it as a market for the "really rich" and the "super rich", in short a market for the new global ELITE.

Art for the elite? Now there's nothing shocking about that: it's just like in the past when Art was for the Prince. And it's not about to collapse or blow away even if some people who are sourly conservative and tradition-minded believe art is not just for investment or shock value...

What really surprises me the most is that there isn't ANOTHER art market around that caters to the tastes of the cultivated middle classes. These are people who share with the afore-mentioned elite a similar level of education, but of course not the same income. Since the 1960s, a huge number of people have gone to college - more than ever before. You could speak of the "cultivated middles classes" as being really a new, gigantic class: the MASS ELITE. The total number of college graduates in the United States rose to over 40 million in 2003, an increase of 40 percent in the decade between 1993 and 2003. Over forty million ! And there are just as many university graduates outside America and their numbers are growing. These are people with at least a smattering of art knowledge; indeed, these are the people you see queuing up in front of the Louvre and all the big museums around the world.

Thanks to them, art - especially museum art, I mean the ancient variety - has never been such Big Business. Never have so many people flocked to museums. And among them, there are a lot of people who do not like the excesses of contemporary art, particularly those of conceptual artists that use animal carcasses, elephant dung and unmade beds to make their artistic points. And they do have money to spend on things they like.

So why isn't there an art market for the cultivated middle classes? I guess photographers have taken up the slack, and there's a lot of beautiful "art photography" around that one would like to have in one's home. But then wanting to have Art for one's home is...SOoo petit-bourgeois, isn't it?

Tell me what you think...Who is going to be the next Saatchi, the one to open up the art market to the mass elite?

1.04.2010

The Biggest Event in 2009? A Non-event...

Yes, I believe that the most important event in 2009, and even for the whole decade, is what has been universally viewed as a resounding failure:the Copenhagen climate conference held in December.

A non-event.

The classic case of a mountain (the meeting of nearly 200 countries to discuss climate change and what to do about it) that has given birth to a mouse (an agreement with no deadlines, no strings attached - simply to continue to discuss the matter in Mexico this year and South Africa next year). Neither developed nor developing countries were happy with the result. The only country that walked out of Copenhagen feeling it had been a victory was China.

Surely other events in the decade have a better Claim at Shaping History: 11/09, the War on Terror, the Big Recession, Obama's election, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Gaza, Darfur etc etc. So why should a fiasco like the Copenhagen Conference be viewed as a milestone event?

For a very simple reason: it signals the return of the world's biggest polluters to the UN negotiation process. Remember what happened to the Kyoto Protocol? Nothing, precisely because America would have nothing to do with it.

And this time, is it going to be any better? You bet! First, nations have agreed to keep talking AND they're putting money behind all this talk: a long-term fund –$100 billion by 2020– has been set up to help developing nations transition to cleaner energy.

I can just hear you mumble that's all the United Nations is good for: talk, talk, talk and who knows when or how much money will ever come to help Bangladesh and all the others who need help when climate change hits them.

That's true, of course. Funds pledged in these international conferences don't always materialize. But a pledge is better than nothing, especially when the United Nations Secretariat is there to keep reminding member governments that they're supposed to cough up the money or else...

Or else, what?

Nothing, of course, except public shame. And for politicians, that's embarrassing. So, in addition to the UN Secretariat, the world press also needs to do its part and stay vigilent. Environmental NGOs, starting with Greenpeace, also must do their part. And you can bet they will. So there is actually a BIG momentum emanating from the Copenhagen Conference.

Might a bunch of prominent environmental NGOs banding together have achieved the same result as the United Nations? It's a thought, but the answer is no. Sure, they could have made a big splash in the press but - that's the point - they couldn't have involved governments. Not directly. Only the United Nations can effectively do that and that's why it's an important organization. That's why even a failed UN Conference remains important.

It all has to do with how the system works.

Actually very few people understand how the UN system works. I know because I've worked in it for 25 years, I've participated in several world conferences and organized a couple of regional ones (in Portugal and in Cyprus - more about that another time). When a journalist writes "the UN badly organized this Conference...", it shows he doesn't really understand the system. You may remember that accusation was repeatedly levelled at the UN in Copenhagen. Perhaps the UN Secretariat did not organize this particular Conference very well, I don't know, I wasn't there. But from my experience, I can tell you that the organization of a world conference is as much the responsibility of the host country as it is of the UN staff involved...

Because, come to think of it, the United Nations doesn't even EXIST!

To begin with, they're NOT united at all. The United Nations is NOT, repeat NOT remotely a world government, not even the beginnings of one. It is not a separate entity from its member nations.

What is it then? It's essentially a (glorified) MEETING place, or to use a UN term: a "forum" serviced by the UN Secretariat. And the secretariat is, as indicated by the name, a bunch of...secretaries, well no, more than that: they're people who know how to organize international conferences and provide the needed technical information to ensure that talks are not merely hot air.

OK, you'll tell me you know all this. Member nations meet at a UN Conference, sure, but what's the use? All they do is fight: developing countries vs. developed and now there's this new, highly vocal group in the melée, the famous BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China). In terms of climate change, these guys want to maintain their chance to develop the way Europe and America did, i.e. at the expense of the environment, and they can't understand why they should restrain themselves when developed countries never did and simply blew up the climate with their heavy footprints over the last two hundred years (what delicate metaphors!).

Result of all this? Predictably no agreement in Copenhagen.

But wait a minute.

Since this whole thing about climate started back in Sweden in 1972 (The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment), we've come a long way, baby.

Sure, it has taken time - over 30 years - partly because so many people were convinced the climate wasn't changing. That's where the United Nations made a smart move: in 1992, they put together a bunch of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, and slowly, report after report, public opinion started to change and eventually everyone became convinced that there was a problem, that the planet as a whole was threatened.

This idea of putting together high level experts is very effective, and it is something the United Nations regularly does in all the areas where it functions: food and agriculture, industry, culture and education, health, science etc And every time there's a technical input into the UN talk process, it slowly but inexorably leads to the adoption of a set of rules to govern international relations. For example, countries can no longer dump poisonous pesticides on other countries, major cultural heritage sites are defended etc etc

But I can hear you: nobody agreed to anything in Copenhagen, no rules about emissions were adopted, it was a huge letdown! That's true but something did happen. A UN Conference can be deemed a real disaster only when government representatives don't listen to each other at all. And it happens more often than you think. A Head of State or Prime MInister flies in to deliver his/her speech which is strictly for home consumption and not for the people sitting in the Conference hall... and they fly off the next minute without engaging into the slightest dialogue. Now, there was much of that going on in Copenhagen, plus a lot of confusion and protest, but there was also some dialogue. Obama did talk to the Europeans, the Indians and the Chinese. And that's very, very important.

The ball has started rolling.

And you can count on the UN Secretariat to keep it rolling till the next meeting in Mexico, and the next after that. The UN process, even when it falters, keeps going, like that water dripping on a stalagmite in a grotto: drip, drip, drip and the stalgmite keeps growing, up, up, up.

That's what the UN Secretariat is paid for...

So, the UN is not a world government, but it's an irreplaceable place to talk about what really matters: human life on this earth - the only one we've got!

1.01.2010

How about an exquisite DIET desert to go with your Festivities Champagne?

I had a dietary problem on New Year's Eve: I needed to come up with a sophisticated desert to finish dinner off with a flourish - something special to go with Champagne - and yet be low-calorie and light, and easy-to-digest, and with NO egg yolks, all of this to stay in keeping with the unbelievably strict dietary requirements of my 96 year-old mother!

The desert had to be based on...cooked fruit, bah! Well, I did devise something rather special that I want to share with you and that I'm consigning to my blog so I won't forget it the next time a need something super duper AND light!

Let me know how you like it.

I did it with pears and apples and a few big, juicy California prunes thrown in for good measure, but I guess you could use any other fruit you like: apricots and, why not, strawberries, blueberries, any berries you happen to have handy. And in one respect I broke down: I used cane sugar (I love its nutty flavour) and a little wine, but I suppose that if you wanted to be really strict about it you could use an artificial sweetener and skip the wine (and use water instead - shudder!).

So here's the recipe:

1. Peel and cut in half (taking out the hard core) a mix of APPLES and PEARS (at least one fruit per person, plus one or two, as desired, to make a nice batch); use also some DRIED FRUIT that you've allowed to soak in hot water with a little sugar added in to plump them up.

2. Put all the fruit in a teflon pan and add the water in which you've soaked the dried fruit, a cup of WHITE WINE or, better still, half-a-cup of PORTO or SHERRY wine, the juice of 1/2 LEMON and 2 spoonfuls of CANE SUGAR, and CINNAMON to taste. And yes, do taste it: it should be sweet but not overwhelming.

3. Place the pan on low heat and COVER it; use a transparent lid to keep an eye on what's happening so that you don't let your fruit mixture dry out. It doesn't take long to cook this way: maybe 15 minutes or less. Check the fruit with a toothpick: when it sinks in real easy, it's done.

4. Take the fruit out (delicately! It breaks easily) and set it out in a nice looking baking dish, something you can take out to the table. Return the pan with its juices to the fire, add some more sugar and wine and boil it down until it starts to thicken then pour it over the fruit.

5. Now, this is really good as is but if you want to serve the fruit for a special occasion, this is how you dress it up:
  • Beat up 3 EGG WHITES real hard with a spoonful of floury sugar, as you would do to prepare a meringue
  • Spread over the fruit mixture
  • Top it off with crumbled up CORNFLAKES or any flakes you like
  • Put in a slow oven (set the temperature as low as your oven can go: the idea is to dry up the egg whites)
6. Before serving, put your fruit under a hot grill so that it will turn a nice amber colour and the flakes will be crunchy.

Success is guaranteed! And if you have any suggestions to improve it, please send your comments...

12.26.2009

Never read a book about an irritating subject before going to bed...

If you do, you won't sleep!

That's what happened to me last night. I opened up a book about Contemporary Art I had received for Christmas and settled comfortably in bed to read it. Now, Contemporary Art is a subject close to my heart. Since I've retired, all I do is paint (and write, of course) and go to museums and (sometimes) galleries and art fairs.

Well, let me tell you, this is a REAL GOOD book, written by a remarkable, highly respected economist, DON THOMPSON who's taught at the London School of Economics, the Harvard Business School etc and who's published nine books. The essay is aptly entitled "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark". The title refers to the price a New York banker paid for Damien Hirst's decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark. More generally, the book surveys the desolate contemporary art scene, diplomatically calling it "the curious economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses".

Curious indeed! As Professor Thompson brilliantly explains it, it's all a matter of "branding", i.e. marketing. In Contemporary Art, you're nobody until someone's branded you. And those who do the branding are very few: a couple of auction houses (Sotheby's and Christie's), ten superstar dealers in New York and another ten in London (Paris, Zurich, Rome, Berlin are all peripheral art cities), a handful of museums ( the Tate in London, MOMA and Guggenheim in New York and a few more but most don't count). Art critics? Art consultants? They don't appear in prominent roles but I haven't finished the book. So, if needed, I'll get back to you with more details in a later blog.

What I wanted to say was how upset I got. And it only got worse the more I thought about it through the night. Because the implications of Thompson's message are clear: in our century, Art is no longer Art. It's not a matter of esthetics, of emotions, of beauty. It's not a matter of draughtmanship, talent for composition, sense of colour, poetic sensibility. Forget all that.

Art is marketing pure and simple.

It's a matter of investment. The new rich don't have the time to educate themselves: they treat art the way they treat any other investment, leaving it to the specialists, i.e. the art dealers. Why do they need specialists? Because the specialists make them feel secure, as Professor Thompson says. That is a very acute observation. Nobody wants to risk money on an emerging artist that has perhaps one chance in a million to grow some day into a "branded artist"...

That's sad for all of us who love art for art's sake, who go to a museum and enjoy looking at a Caravaggio or a Monet...

OK, but wait, hasn't it always been this way? Now, the art game is just more visible because the billionaire class is so much larger as a result of globalization. Now you have Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, Brazilian billionaires. It used to be that art collectors were mostly American - that was back at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. America was the place where the money was being made, and Americans bought whatever contemporary art they could find on the market. In those days, that meant buying the Impressionists - which, by the way, made the staid Victorian-style European bourgeoisie laugh derisively, but not for long when the prices of Impressionist paintings started to soar.

Should we therefore be careful not to laugh derisively at Contemporary Art? We don't want to replicate the errors of the said staid European bourgeoisie, do we?

But is the situation really the same? Isn't Contemporary Art - and here I refer to "conceptual art" which is the art selling at the highests prices - something different, so different from art forms that were fashionable in the past that some have defined it as "anti-art"?

Consider this. By their own saying, conceptual artists claim they have broken with every art tradition. Their works are often made industrially, not by themselves but by their assistants, and they are made on an industrial scale, with several or more replicas and too large to fit in any human habitat, or too unpleasant to be decorative.

Marcel Duchamp is the founding father, and his bidet the flagship of contemporary art: there are five of his bidets around the world (you can find one in every major art museum), and none of them the original which actually got lost when the American collector who had bought it moved it from New York to California back in 1919, I think, or thereabouts. That happened 90 years ago. By the way, would you like to have a bidet in your living room?

Moreover the title of a piece of art is as important or more important than the piece itself. In short, it is art because the artist says so. And it sells on the market as long as the artist saying this is a branded artist. So if you or I say it, it won't cut ice with anybody.

As Professor Thompson put it, the key is in the branding. It's a guarantee of safety for your art investment. But for how long can the game of branding go on when what is branded is not art but anti-art? Obviously a very long time because the modern marketing machinery is real powerful. And as I was saying above, it all started quite a long time ago, some 90 years, if you accept that Marcel Duchamp was the pioneer conceptual artist. But History teaches that even the most elite brands can disappear or come under pressure from new fashions and give way to new brands...A few years ago, we saw Mercedes cars being slowly displaced first by BMWs and more recently by Audis. In this case, it has taken some 90 years for Mercedes to lose its preeminence...

What will displace Contemporary Art?

12.25.2009

No hastle Turkey for Xmas

This is a variation on the classic turkey stuffed with apples...with a twist!

First of all, why stuff a turkey with apples? There are three basic reasons:
- one,the fruit stuffed inside ensures the turkey meat will be moist and tender without the hastle of basting;
- two, provided the turkey is big enough, there will be enough juicy, flavourful fruit to go with the meat so that you don't need to cook vegetables or add anything else beyond simple french fries (you can use the frozen variety to make it even easier;
- three, the fruit juices make for an extra light gravy with a minimum of fats because you don't need to smother your turkey in butter, oil or margarine: the fruit ensures it cooks without burning (and that means it's a low cholesterol recipe by definition)

But chunks of peeled apples are so run-of-the-mill, they're...boring: almost a cop out!

So how can you make it INTERESTING?

Simple, just leave your chunks of apple in a (tasty) mixture of chicken broth and brandy to soak up flavours for a couple of hours before stuffing the bird with it.

More precisely:

For TWO cups of PEELED APPLE CHUNKS:
Prepare ONE cup of hot flavourful CHICKEN BROTH to which you add:
- ONE SMALL GLASS of BRANDY (and if you feel like it, why not add also a couple of spoonfuls of whatever fruit liquor you happen to have handy: it makes for additional flavour...)
- the juice of a HALF LEMON (so the apples keep their color)
- one big spoonful of SUGAR
- a dash of PEPPER (optional)
Mix the apples in this mixture and let it sit for at least a couple of hours at room temperature.
Then fill your bird, packing it in tight and cook it as usual in a regular oven at 180° or whatever temperature you normally use to roast a chicken.

COOKING TIME : For every pound you must count 20 minutes of cooking, plus 10 percent of total time to ensure your turkey is fully cooked (example: a 6 pound Turkey requires 20mn x 6 : 120 mn + 10% = 132 mn: a little over 2 hours)

Enjoy and have a nice relaxed Christmas dinner that won't cause you indigestion!

12.18.2009

Murder is a click away for 100,000 people...

What a thought! Murder is just one click away for 100,000 people. That's how many signed up on Facebook to sustain Tartaglia's attempt at killing the Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi four days ago...Since then, the site has been closed by Facebook which, understandably, doesn't admit violence among its users.

But the amazing fact remains: one hundred thousand persons supported Tartaglia's mad, criminal gesture.

That's exactly how many supported Hitler when he first founded his party: 100,000.

Sure, Berlusconi is a divisive political figure in Italy and he's been in trouble recently, what with losing immunity from prosecution and his wife asking for divorce...

Really it does make you wonder about human nature

12.17.2009

The geography of Heaven

Have you ever thought about what the world looks like on the other side of Death? Of course, if you don't believe in an after life, skip this blog! But if you do, I'd like your help to think this one through...

First question: are you going to meet everyone you knew in your life, and I mean EVERYONE? That old, mustachoed aunt who got on your nerves but she was such a sweet soul...That gooey guy in the office who never stopped following you around but he was so full of good intentions...Your clever sister who got you in trouble without meaning to (or perhaps she did mean to)...I could go on and on. Sure, there are more people you'd want to see again than people you don't want to ever lay your eyes on. Still...

Second question: will everyone be thrown in together or will there be divisions? I suspect that each religion will be given its own piece of Heaven. The Christians over here, the Moslems over there, the Bhudists, the Hinduists etc etc and each with their own system and rules of procedure. As Christians we all know that the good ones go to Heaven and the bad ones to Hell, and then there's an intermediate station, the Purgatory, to allow for the dust to settle down before any final decision is taken. But what about the non-Christians? We all know the Muslims have a beatific vision of a garden in Paradise filled with beautiful women. What I would like to know is what kind of Heaven are Moslem women headed for? A garden filled with beautiful men? Do you have any idea? And what about the Bhudists? Are they all in Nirvana, and what's that like? Do you have to be a Bhudist monk to get there? And what about Bhudist nuns ? Are there any around? And what about all the other religions?

Come to think of it, I know NOTHING about the geography of Heaven and I'd be happy to have your views...

12.13.2009

The Old Masters vs. Contemporary Art: a losing battle

Yes, it's a losing battle. If you think the Old Masters are up there sitting on their eternal throne, the subject of adulation by the screaming masses, think again! True, museums showing their works have multiplied their audience by a factor of ten since the 1990s, perhaps more. I remember when I was a kid going to the Louvre forty years ago, it was perfectly empty. You could just walk in anytime of day and go up to the Monna Lisa and...nobody around! How wonderful! Today, you have to queue up and be ready to stand in line for hours, and once you get to the Monna Lisa, you have to wait again.If that isn't a roaring success for Leonardo da Vinci et al. , I don't know what is!

WRONG! The Old Masters are a success with the ignorant populace but NOT with the cognoscenti. These are the people with money - or access to money, i.e. the art merchants - who invest in Art. Only the very rich can do so, and now, crisis or no crisis, we have an ever growing new class of billionaires (yes BILLIONS, not millions), not just in America as was the case throughout the 20th century, but now in China, India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil...These are people who invest in...the Old Masters? No, they do not. Definitely not.

They invest in Contemporary Art.

Why? Do they really like Manzoni's shit in a shoebox, Burri's sackcloth, Cattelan's crushed Pope, Nikki de St Phalle's lurid dolls, Jeff Koons' plastic heart, Botero's fat Christ, Damien Hirst's pills, Christo's wrappings, Gabriel Orozco's oranges etc etc?

Yes, THEY DO. If you think they see beauty or meaning in these "works of art" (often modestly called "installations"), you're wrong again. What they see are dollar signs. Money, money, money. And THEY LOVE IT. And they're right. These are serious guys who've made serious money, lots of it, and they know what's a good deal when they see it. When you think of Art, you think of Beauty, Pleasure, Emotions...That's for the likes of you guys who've never made a dollar in your whole working life. Not them. They know better.

Art is for INVESTMENT. Let the ignorant populace flock to museums to gorge on the Old Masters - they never go to museums. No time for it. But they have time to invest in Contemporary Art - yes, definitely. And they can rely on high-level experts to help them in their investments: art merchants, art critics, art historians and the directors of contemporary art museums. They are all at their beck and call, all chanting the same chant: contemporary art is for the cognoscenti. If you're a contemporary art collector, you're not a dunce or a dude. No, you're someone in the know. You're above the screaming masses. You're special...And the returns on your investments are magnificent.

Today, as the latest auctions in New York made clear, the level of Andy Warhol's oeuvre has gone over the $40 million line - works that twenty years ago sold for $20,000 or less. And not just Warhol and the Pop Artists but all the other "blue chip" Contemporary Artists too, like Damien Hirst or Buren. They're all up there, over the $10 million line.

If you don't sell your art over ten million, you're a NOBODY. That's what the market says, and the market is never wrong. By that criterion, the Old Masters are NOBODIES. Three years ago, a Botticelli came on the market - a very, very rare event - and it sold for...$ 6 millions. Yes, that's not a typo: SIX million.

Now who's the greatest painter that ever was? Rembrandt? More or less. He's got to be up there in that rarified circle with Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, El Greco, Goya, Rubens and a few others (not very many, surely). Last week a self portrait sold for...$30.1 million at Christie's in New York.

That's less than Andy Warhol. And that's the point, isn't it? That's what the market says: Rembrandt is worth less than Andy Warhol.

Of course, one has to consider the specifics of this particular work of art.This Rembrandt was an Old Master with a problem. It sold at the lower estimate, because people were afraid it would be hard to restore (the varnish looked bad). But with Contemporary Art, there are no such fears - not ever. Some of the art falls to pieces - in fact, it is conceived as such from the very start: it uses dirt, or textiles or fresh fruits as a material; it is meant to fall to pieces - yet that doesn't stop anyone from paying top prices. The difficulties of restoration or maintenance are NEVER a consideration, and certainly not a problem.

You tell me what is the explanation for this astounding string of aberrations?
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