Thursday, February 4, 2010

Very entertaining: art market feeding frenzy revs up again

Auctioneer Henry Wyndham (left) had the right phrase for it as his gavel hovered in the air at Sotheby's in London last night — "Fair warning".

A split second later a new world record was established for a work of art at auction as an anonymous telephone bidder forked out £65,001,250 ($US104,327,006) for Giacometti's L'Homme qui marche I (Walking Man I) from 1961.

£65 million. You would think the news of someone parting with such a jaw-dropping sum of money for a bronze sculpture would warrant a place on the Business pages. After all, this has nothing to do with art; this is financial speculation on a grand scale — to say nothing of the insider dealing and other chicanery that goes undetected behind the scenes whenever such vertiginous transactions unfold at auction.

But no, this isn't business; it's show business. The BBC in their infinite wisdom filed the story under Entertainment (left).

I wonder how entertaining such an event will seem to the immiserated denizens of Port au Prince for whom that $104.3 million would have gone a very significant way in rebuilding hospitals, schools and other parts of their wrecked infrastructure. A mere fraction of that sum would throw up a few thousand corrugated tin shacks of the kind pre-quake Haitains used to call home and which must now seem like a distantly remembered luxury.

Nothing offers quite such a striking illustration of how polarised our world has become than a couple of hundred of the Stinking Rich breaking into applause at Sotheby's just because an anonymous billionaire on the telephone has coughed up $100 million for a work of art. The likelihood that the purchase was funded by the sort of Wall Street hocus pocus that took the world's banking system to within an inch of Reaper Time makes it all the more nauseating...or entertaining, depending on your epistemological bias.

There is something richly symbolic in this particular work of art setting a new world art market record. Just as Damien Hirst's pill cabinets came to symbolize a market high on greed, so Giacometti's striding man offers an ironic totem for how, in a single tap of the hammer, the art market has veered from recession-induced anorexia back to bilious over-indulgence.

It will be interesting to see if this price serves to encourager les autres, bringing more blue-chip works to the block and more billionaires to the trough. If so, we could be back in the elevator, even though we haven't yet fixed the roof. Fair warning.