A new class of art connoisseurs from the developing world is taking the global art market by storm, phoning in bids to Christie’s and Sotheby’s and shipping works out to every corner of the globe.
This past week auction houses held their largest sales of all time. To great fanfare, Christie’s sold Francis Bacon’s "Three Studies of Lucian Freud," a triptych depicting the late artist’s close friend from different angles, for a record $142.4 million.
In the same sale, the New York-based auction house set the record for the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold Jeff Koons’ giant steel sculpture, Balloon Dog (Orange) to an anonymous telephone bidder for $58.4 million.
Art market analysts attribute this last week’s sky-high price tags to the emergence of this new class of super-wealthy art collectors from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America who are looking to invest their excess capital in the most collectable — and enjoyable — speculative commodity: art.
Even as museums pop up around the world — in Qatar, Turkey and China, for example — there is no question that the landscape has changed as private collectors with seemingly endless resources dictate where high value art lands.
Levin says that private collectors have become the most dynamic force in the art market these days, putting themselves in direct competition with museums by opening their own institutions.
"Now, museums are dependent on ultra-high net worth individuals," who push the price of art through the roof, said Levin. In the past, critics or curators were the ones deciding which works of art were most desirable, but today collectors hold that power, he said.
To be fair, museums have never been a mainstay in auction house sales. A museum’s board of trustees needs to meet and approve curators’ requests for new art, and the fast-paced, unpredictable nature of auctions does not suit their tight budgets.
But with prices skyrocketing into nine-figure sums, even the wealthiest museums are forced out of the picture for top-billing art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York declined to comment to Al Jazeera, saying that they don't discuss the international art market or how it affects them.
But for the sake of comparison, those museums, two of the world’s richest, each spent between $32-39 million on acquisitions for the fiscal year ending in 2012. The record-setting Bacon, at $142 million, fetched double their combined annual budgets.
Not that they would have been interested. Some critics bemoaned the fact that the world’s most expensive painting might not resurface from a private collection for many years, saying that it instead belonged in a museum, but Maneker said those concerns are misplaced.
“You put something in a museum because a scholar or curator has made a choice that this work represents an important moment in an artist’s career or in art history, not because someone spent a lot of money on it,” he said.
Besides, even in the super-elite world of billionaire collectors, museums still have a role to play. Work featured in the world’s preeminent museums is likely to gain in value, just as a work of art’s provenance — the list of previous owners — can boost its price.
“If it’s purchased by a museum, people see it as a mark of distinction,” said Heiden. In the same way, it can behoove a private collector to have her prized investment shown at one of the world's great museums.
Capellazzo suggests that with time the market will guide works where they need to be. The public tends to gain access to these privately held works at some point, she said, even if they are holed up halfway across the globe.
“I think all art finds its natural way into the world,” said Cappellazzo. “These great masterpieces, no one really owns them. You’re just a caretaker.”