Art market craziness

As my friend Chuck says, even the crappy Picasso’s are bringing in $30 million. What in the world is going on? The all-art index is up 21% in the first half of 2007, compared to 14% for the S&P500. The November ArtNews reports that Sotheby’s and Christie’s are offering upwards of $1 billion in guarantees this year. Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold $7.5 billion in art in 2006, and more this year. Add Phillips de Pury & Co. (which emphasizes contemporary, where the action is), and it’s surreal.

The easy, short answer is that art markets move in conjunction with the segments in the economy who are purchasing art. Japanese economy in the 1980s, art market booms. Economy (and Japanese in particular) crashes in 1990s, art market dumps. Hedge funds in 2000s, up up up. Chinese contemporary art has jumped 200 times value in 20 years, from $1.8M to $364. And on it goes.

A more interesting answer has to do with the almost desperate search for financial opportunities, which is of more recent vintage. And art is very different from other kinds of investment vehicles, in that it has to income stream associated with it – it has to go up in value for it to be worthwhile as an investment.

But this is what’s going on: an ongoing and largely as-yet-incomplete attempt to commoditize art more systematically. I think finance-oriented buyers are looking for ways to rationalize the art market they way that other kinds of commodities are collateralized, price inefficiencies are located and exploited, and opportunities are created. This is where the action will be in the next decade or so.

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