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The fifty art market kings (by Adrian Darmon)
01 November 2001

The art market has more than ever fallen prey to rich speculators after the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 in the U.S as the present rush on works by great masters tends to suggest.

After the deadly attacks against the World trade center twin towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington it was thought that the art market would be hit by their inevitable economic repercussions. In fact, it did at a lower level and many art and antique dealers have been facing a dire crisis for the past two months but it did certainly not regarding most works sold at over $ 1 million.

Demand for works by great masters has increased dramatically and the richest buyers have gone on an unprecedented spending spree. Such phenomenon has been hailed by many big art dealers who have however analysed it as being mainly speculative.

" The art market has become a kind of new branch of the financial market for several speculators, in fact no more than fifty wealthy people who merely consider art pieces as speculative tools also aimed at magnifying their status," a respected Geneva-based courtier told Artcult.

Some of these people have little knowledge in art and simply buy big signatures for the sake of making a profitable investment. In view of such a situation art lovers are left with crumbs as most of them surely don't have the means to compete with rich entrepreneurs who are now reigning as the market kings.

No need to say that the art market is no longer the realm of collectors who not long ago painstakingly devoted their life to empty their wallets in order to gather the pieces that thrilled them. That time is over as the market has now become a new kind of casino for rich gamblers eager to win enormous jackpots.

Such a game is however somewhat dangerous and certain tycoons like Bernard Arnault, head of the LVMH group, and others have already paid the price for some thoughtless purchases, according to our well-informed source. Buying a big signature is one thing, sensing its real artistic value is truly another story. As a result, speculative acquisitions may prove highly risky in the short term.

All the more, the game that is going on only involves fifty people who really control the art market but in a way that places them as acrobats without safety nets. In addition, their dangerous game has had ill-effects since the big auction houses have adopted new aggressive sale policies such as a guaranteeing minimum auction prices to vendors in order to preserve their position. They even have hired procurers to snatch important pieces for their sales and are now reducing the role of true specialists, mainly art experts or historians, as most of them are apparently not enough business-minded. Still, the net yearly profits generated by these auction houses have not exceeded two per cent lately.

There has been a worrying split between the sector of great masters, which makes the headlines in newspapers especially when price record are beaten, and the domain of simply good artists, which does no longer attract big buyers. Given the choice between a painting by Monet at $ 2 million and 40 works by Eugène Boudin at $ 50,000 each, an investor would thus readily buy the Impressionist master even though the work in question might not be a masterpiece. Such attitude tends to reveal to what extent the art market is undermined and proves that passion is no more a vital element when one big buyer decides to purchase an important piece.

Boudin and scores of other good artists are thus increasingly neglected and the gap between them and the big shots in the field of painting and sculpture has widened dangerously during the past decade. All the more, there have been speculative operations engineered by some cunning marketing men in the domain of contemporary art accompanied by a flurry of artificial prices being recorded at auction during the past five years. As a result, several artists have reached some undue fame while many talented ones have been wrongly sacrificed. "In that sense talent means nothing nowadays. The only thing that counts is the marketing operation that is going to make an artist reach fame. Well, I can tell you that such sector will meet disaster one of these days", a specialist warned.

Now connoisseurs surely know that the best thing to do is to keep aloof from these speculative moves and to continue to nurture an undeterred passion for art as sooner or later, some inevitable corrections will occur on the market like it happens so many times on the Stock Exchange. One has simply to be patient.

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