The Great Vanishing Act; A New Breed of Collector Is Pouring Serious Money into Contemporary Art, but the Works Are Disappearing into Private Homes and May Never Be Seen on Public Display

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Great Vanishing Act; A New Breed of Collector Is Pouring Serious Money into Contemporary Art, but the Works Are Disappearing into Private Homes and May Never Be Seen on Public Display


Byline: ANDREW RENTON

THE Arts Council's idea of offering interest-free [pounds sterling]2,000 loans to buyers of contemporary art is inspired, but too little, too late. It arrives at the very moment when prices have gone beyond the reach of ordinary artloving mortals.

I recently chaired a debate with private and corporate collectors. There were gasps from the audience when the German collector Harald Falckenberg revealed images from his 60,000 sq ft factory near Hamburg.

Aficionados rarely say what they pay but the scale of this operation could be measured in millions of euros.

Then Susan May, the Arts Council's head of acquisitions, disclosed her annual budget - a trifling [pounds sterling]150,000.

That would not get you more than a few square inches of a Damien Hirst.

In the past, the council would snap up a key Bacon - his first, formative, screaming Pope of 1949, now worth millions - or a Hockney from his student days in the early Sixties. But those times are long gone. The recent gifts to the Tate by leading artists such as Anthony Caro, Anish Kapoor and Antony Gormley reveal a sense of exemplary responsibility and gratitude on their part. But they serve only to illustrate the Tate's lamentable inability to afford even the newest artists.

In New York last month, contemporary auctions generated $220 million ([pounds sterling]113 million), mentionable for the first time in the same breath as the fine-art sales - which included a $39 million ([pounds sterling]20 million) Gauguin and a $21 million ( [pounds sterling] 10 . 8 million) Modigliani.

Indeed, some of the new art was an ironic take on the old.

Maurizio Cattelan's model of the Pope struck by a meteor sold for more than $3 million ([pounds sterling]1.5 million). When it last came to market three years ago, it was worth $800,000 ([pounds sterling]412,000). Warhol's Mustard Race Riot from 1963 fetched more than $15 million ([pounds sterling]7.7 million), a price so stratospheric that the catalogue declined to give an estimate, stating that advice was available "upon request".

The question on everyone's lips was who, at such prices, was buying? At the October Frieze Art Fair in London, my guess was that around only one per cent of the 42,000 people who visited were hardcore collectors.

The fair, nonetheless, did [pounds sterling]26 million of business in a weekend. That suggests a small number of high-rollers.

Close scrutiny of the [pounds sterling]11 million Damien Hirst Pharmacy bonanza at Sotheby's, the day after Frieze, provided further clues, classifying collectors into four categories. While the sale was standing-room only and packed three deep around the walls, the first type of collector kept away, bidding by telephone, focused on major works and ignored the memorabilia tat from the Notting Hill restaurant.

The second group in the room was bidding aggressively on the paintings and cabinet sculptures with a view to an immediate resale. For these hardened dealers, losing one lot or other only boosted the value of the rest of the items they had bought.

The third and most interesting group are the new wannabes, people with serious money to spend and a desire to make a mark in society. They often come with advisers in tow and will go the extra half-million to win something their friends will admire. …

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