By Ben Windsor
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The high price of oils

This article is over 8 years, 7 months old
The art market is awash with cash, and Qatar is now hoovering up classical and modern collections thanks to its oil and gas dollars. This puffed up market of speculators has distorted creativity, argues Ben Windsor.
Issue 387

Each year Art Review magazine compiles a list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world. This year, the highest ranked artist, Ai Weiwei, languishes at No 9. All places above him are taken by directors of public museums and private galleries (the trend setters of the art world) with one exception.

The exception, Sheikha al-Mayassa, occupies the top spot. She sits there because of the high price of oil and natural gas, which bankroll her activity. She is a member of the Qatari royal family, and the head of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). It is in this capacity that she has embarked on the biggest spending spree in the history of the art market.

The QMA’s oil riches have recently broken two art world records – for the highest price paid at auction (88 million pounds for Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud) and for the highest price ever paid (155 million pounds for Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players) bought directly from the estate of a Greek shipping tycoon.

But these purchases are only the tip of the iceberg. The QMA is believed to have spent over 600 million pounds a year for the last eight years, buying up art around the world.

To put that in context, the Museum of Modern Art in New York paid 21 million pounds for artworks in 2011-12. The QMA’s acquisitions will fill trophy museums designed by trophy architects – part of a grand plan to make Qatar a cultural superpower.

At least they will be on public display, though it’ll be interesting to see how much of the “public” gets to visit them. Migrants comprise 94 percent of the Qatari workforce and 88 percent of the population – but most of them are obliged to live in overcrowded labour camps.

Will they be welcome in these palaces of culture? The contrast between their miserable lives and the PR-fantasy version of Qatar that the QMA seeks to curate could hardly be greater.

In October the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins wrote a blistering attack on London’s Frieze Art Fair. Although the class divide in Britain is less stark than in Qatar, the sense of disconnect is similar: “It is a parallel universe. Inside: the jetset, the hedge funders, the oligarch’s offspring, the industrialists… Outside: normality; mothers wondering how to feed their kids, the bedroom tax, child poverty… It’s no wonder that so many upscale artists aren’t really tackling the actual concerns of the world… They would mean nothing to most buyers.”

As if to ram home this point, prices paid for art at the “ultra-high end” of the market have been shooting up in recent years, and it seems likely that the Bacon record will be broken soon.

This rise may be partially driven by speculators seeking a safe haven for their money during the economic crisis. Many believe art is a safe bet, alongside silver, wine and gold (an “asset class” known as SWAG).

But analysis by market researchers ArtTactic suggests such activity is a secondary factor. They argue that speculators rarely buy above 12 million pounds, as they are looking for “the next big thing” lower down the scale. Instead they suggest that the soaring prices are due to a proliferation of the super-rich, who are out hunting for trophies.

The latest Forbes rich list counted 1,426 dollar billionaires – up from 1,125 in 2008. That’s an awful lot of extra disposable income swilling around. It seems likely that most of the art sold for millions will end up far away from rabble like us.

Either on the walls of private mansions – or locked up in bank vaults, hidden from everyone’s view, awaiting a magical appreciation of value. It is the logical outcome of a market which is both surreal and obscene.

Visual art is particularly vulnerable to these forces. Whereas the works produced by novelists, composers, choreographers and so on have little financial value as objects in themselves (but rather depend on large numbers of people paying small amounts) in visual art the object is usually paramount.

So rather than try and reach a mass audience, there is an immense temptation for artists working in the field to tailor their product to the tastes of tiny elites who can shower them with money.

As Charlotte Higgins wrote, “When art prices have become so stratospheric, that fact [the primacy of the object] becomes a distortion and a distraction… I have heard of artists wryly talking about ‘painting money’…[art] risks becoming a branch of the luxury-goods market – and an irrelevance.”

Thankfully, there are plenty of artists who refuse to play by the rules of this rarefied world. They may have to wait tables to pay the bills, but their work will be all the more grounded – and relevant – because of it.

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