High-end art isn’t an economic indicator

By Laurie Bennett

November 13, 2013 at 8:59am

The art world set another record Tuesday with an auction price of $142.4 million for a 1969 Francis Bacon triptych.

The work, depicting Bacon’s friend and competitor Lucian Freud, was acquired by an unidentified buyer who outbid six others.

Francis Bacon triptych

The sale immediately gave rise to suggestions that the money would have been better spent on Philippines typhoon relief and to cheers that the record signaled a rebounding economy.

Yet high-end art prices are even less indicative of economic health than are stock prices.

They’re a barometer of ultrawealth. Like large philanthropic gifts, nine-figure art sales are a manifestation of a small group of people amassing vast amounts of cash.

In the years since the economic meltdown, at least four works have sold for more than $100 million. Most recently, Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” sold for $119.9 million.

What does this have to do with the unemployed factory worker or the homeless Filipino?

Nothing, except to signal that a few have the ability to help many, if they so choose.

Buying habits in the upper mesosphere are not a measure of overall consumer demand. Even those who insist on trickle-down economics would be hard-pressed to chart the ripples from $100 million art acquisitions to families facing foreclosure.

Indeed, Christie’s, the auction house that sold the triptych, is owned by billionaire Francois Pinault and family.

In this case, some of the trickle-down might make its way to Pinault’s daughter-in-law, actress Salma Hayek. Maybe Hayek and gal pal Penelope Cruz can go out for an expensive salad and give the waiter a really big tip.

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