Meet the Modern-Day Medicis Who Dominate the Art World for Profit as Well as Patronage
Gray, Chris, The Independent (London, England)
BILL GATES has dozens, the man who bought the Millennium Dome has enough to decorate a redundant lottery folly, and Lord Thomson has the most expensive.
When the newspaper heir beat the Getty Museum to snap up Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents for pounds 49.5m recently, he demonstrated how individual super-rich art collectors are outbidding established institutions for the world's most desirable artworks.
Such is the power and patronage of the Microsoft founder Gates, the new owner of the Millennium Dome, Philip Anschutz, Lord Thomson and others that they are becoming known as modern versions of the Medicis, the patrons of Renaissance Florence.
Their interest in the international art market is not just that of billionaires who enjoy the thrill of having an Old Master or a modern masterpiece displayed in the living room, however - although Mr Gates has multi-million pound paintings hanging all over his mansion outside Seattle. As well as aesthetics and ostentation they are also encouraged by the continuing unpredictability of the stock markets. When share prices fall and the world's wealthiest investors stand to lose billions, it is not surprising that they look for other repositories for their spare cash. And, in a bear market, fine art is the place for money to be.
A survey by The Art Newspaper has identified 36 billionaires who have significant percentages of their fortune invested in art. Valued at $52.8bn (pounds 33.5bn), Mr Gates is the richest, and he has paid some of the most expensive prices, including $31m for Leonardo's Codex Leicester and $36m for Winslow Homer's Lost on the Grand Banks, the highest price paid for an American painting.
The co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, is less wealthy with a $25bn fortune, but he has a bigger and better collection than his former partner, littered with Old Masters and Impressionists.
Lord Thomson, with wealth estimated at $14.9bn, is a major player, renowned for his interest in Turners, Constables and Old Masters. He is competing with the likes of Mr Anschutz - who plans to spend pounds 200m turning the Dome into a sports and leisure complex - Carlos Slim Helu, a Rodin enthusiast and reputedly the richest man in South America, the stock broker Charles Schwab, the music tycoon David Geffen, banker and Picasso fan David Rockefeller, and the British financier Joseph Lewis.
Lord Thomson's record purchase of Massacre of the Innocents this month was the continuation of a trend that has seen Old Masters hold their value while stocks and shares have plunged relentlessly.
The last five years have seen Old Masters dominate the auction houses of London and New York. A Rembrandt has gone for $28.7m, a Michelangelo drawing for $11.3m, and a Hobbema for $9.1m. Some pieces, including Edvard Munch's pounds 2.3m Woman in an Interior, from 1902, have been selling at four times the auction prices reached in the art boom of 1988-90, according to the trade newsletter ARTnews.
In any one year, at least five latter-day Medicis will satisfy their rarefied tastes by spending an estimated $100m on art. As records fall, veterans of the auction rooms have compared the mood to the overheated days of the Eighties, but art dealers do not believe collectors are making impulse buys.
They argue that the perilous state of the stock market is making serious art look like a sound investment. The investors are sophisticated, discerning and wait until they see the best work at the best price. According to William Ruprecht, the president and chief executive of Sotheby's, they are deserting shares to take a considered gamble on something they will enjoy for its own sake.
"There's a new confidence in the art market. You see really good interest in Europe and Asia, but particularly in the United States," he told ARTnews. "People are looking at tangibles as a viable alternative to equities. …