Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Annus mirabilis for bankers, annus horribilis for those who bailed them out

Picasso's biographer John Richardson has described the year 1931-1932 as an annus mirabilis for the artist. It was on March 8th 1932 that Picasso painted the portrait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter entitled Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (shown on the wall behind Picasso in Cecil Beaton's photograph above).

That same painting yesterday set a new record for a work of art at auction when it sold to an anonymous buyer at Christie's in New York for $106,482,500 (£70,278,450/€81,991,525). Christie's, for some inexplicable reason, described the result as "staggering". But hey, it's only a little bit more than Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein will trouser in bonuses this year.

The very name Picasso is enough to have art investment fund managers and hedge fund billionaires masturbating into their spreadsheets. The artist's works are the most eagerly-chased 'commodities' on the international art market, seemingly more prized as badges of wealth than for any aesthetic significance that the likes of John Richardson might seek to explore. This may partly explain why paintings by Picasso also figure so prominently on international art theft databases as the most frequently stolen objects in the annals of modern art crime.

As John Richardson observed of another high-priced Picasso - The Dream — it "has become one of Picasso's most popular images; sadly, the record prices it fetched in 1997 and 2006 and its renown as a tourist attraction at a Las Vegas casino have left the painting so sullied that it is difficult to judge it on its merits." (It is arguably now even more notorious for having had a hole punched through it by the elbow of its hapless owner Steve Wynn while showing it off to his guests.)

Christie's may disingenuously declare themselves 'staggered' by the outcome of this week's auction, but being the engineers of the sort of arcane backroom deals that now fuel the international art market, the auction houses know better than most the central role played by investors, speculators and bankers in driving destructive boom and bust cycles. They're in bed with them.

But how will the news of another $100 million painting be received by the humble taxpayers who have already bailed out those responsible for the ever deeper global recession into which we're all still sinking? While the super-rich collector who placed the winning bid on the Picasso now sits staring proudly at his Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (right), everyone else looks on, probably not green, but definitely bust.

There is a certain synchronicity to this week's result. Picasso was among the most investment-savvy artists of the modern period, having been one of the first artists to benefit from a structured art investment vehicle — the now famous 'Peau de l'Ours' fund organised by André Level between 1904-1914. (Note how Picasso looks every bit like a fat-cat investment banker in Beaton's photograph, above).

Nor was Picasso averse to rubbing shoulders with the speculators who amassed his works before they strategically returned them to market for a profit. In the 1930s, Picasso succeeded in persuading one such collector, the Lausanne-based Dr G.F.Reber, to loan a number of works to a retrospective of Picasso's work where, as Richardson notes, they were "discreetly for sale." [Richardson, J., A Life of Picasso Vol III, Cape, 2007, p458].

This week's result has been hailed as definitive proof that the art market has finally recovered from the recession, as if the price of Giacometti's Walking Man back in February ($104m) had suddenly vanished from memory. But this market bears no relation to the art market that most artists and collectors know. This is investment banking. The Picasso and Giacometti prices should be viewed alongside the extortionate bonuses currently being paid to City workers in New York and London. Recession? What recession?

Let's be clear. This is an art market fuelled by the same greed that has steered the Western economies to the brink of oblivion. One hundred and six million dollars for a painting. Read it and weep.