Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Art market's winners and losers

A rush by investors and the super rich to get out of stocks and shares into objects that seem safer investments is undoubtedly a major factor behind the soaring price of artworks. Others are cashing in too, with slick lawyers exploiting the claims of Holocaust victims to help fuel the ballooning art market. There are, of course, losers as well. They include the general public because cash-strapped museums can’t compete with the big buyers and, just as seriously, face mounting problems with theft. November opened with No.5, 1948, by American artist Jackson Pollock setting the record for the most money ever paid for a painting at £73.35m. The deal took place in a private transaction between two tycoons in the United States. It beat the previous record for a sale which was an estimated £70m for a painting by Gustav Klimt. Art market specialists point to yet new “thrills” provided over the last week by yet more record amounts paid at New York sales at Sotheby’s and Christies. Sales of paintings by Impressionists and early 20th century artists made £450 million. This is double the amount generated last spring, and much more than the last peak sales in the art market, back in 1989-90.

A bizarre – some might say macabre - aspect to the last spate of sales is that the continuing supply of such high-value paintings have been provided for sale due to a process known as “restitution”. This is the process of restoring property lost by its rightful owners as a result of looting during the Nazi era. Klimt’s portrait of Adele Block-Bauer and a painting by Ernst Kirchner reached the art market in this way. The way in which lawyers, art dealers and tycoons are driving up prices is causing grave concern amongst museum and gallery directors whose job it is to preserve and present art to the public. The hunt for more and more high value works is affecting the works held in public collections. In Germany, Professor Ludwig von Putendorf, chair of the Berliner Bruecke Museum which lost the Kirchner sold last week, has said that lawyers and auction houses were seeking out the heirs of Holocaust victims to get them to make claims. His museum, by the way, is a modest establishment struggling to survive. More often than not, the public loses the chance to see major works in museums and municipal collections. Bury City Art Gallery’s sale of its only Lowry is another example. On a wider level, the ballooning prices of artworks in general are fuelling, not only commercialisation and privatisation but even theft. Recently the world-famous Hermitage museum in St Petersburg was shocked by the loss of historic objects due to insider stealing. Its director said that the huge rise of prices in the antiques market had corrupted some of his staff.

Corinna Lotz, arts editor

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