Mega art sales for Munch and Rothko should make us scream

May 9, 2012
Annemarie Lopez

Record breaking sales for The Scream and Orange, Red, Yellow, are a window on inequality

Getty Images

MARK ROTHKO's abstract painting Orange, Red, Yellow (above) has sold at auction in New York for $86.9 million - the highest price ever fetched by a piece of contemporary art. The sale of the 1961 painting follows less than a week after Edvard Munch's 1895 pastel version of The Scream sold for $119.9 million – a record at open auction.

The two sales are part of a trend at the very high end of the art market that has seen iconic works of art snapped up for astronomical prices in recent times. But what is driving it?

Forbes says the anonymous buyer of The Scream is rumoured to be the government of Qatar, which could have acquired it for its new museum, set to open in 2014. But other names have also been suggested, including billionaires Leonard Blavatnik and Paul Allen.

Forbes notes that the international super wealthy, including billionaire collectors like Roman Abramovich, Francois Pinault, Steven Cohen, Steve Wynn, Eli Broad and Bidzina Ivanishvilli have been bidding up prices on top-quality pieces which are considered "trophies".

Auction prices of more than $80 million have been fetched recently for artworks by Picasso, Giacometti, Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Claude Monet.

But rather than just oohing and ahhing about these astounding sums, Michael Casey's Wall Street Journal blog suggests we ponder the global economic forces that have led us to this moment.

Why, just three years out from the worst financial crisis in 80 years, Casey asks, are art prices reaching soaring new heights "while most inhabitants of the two biggest economic regions are shadowed by mountainous debts and face gloomy employment and income-earning prospects"? Rising fuel and commodity prices have left some fabulously rich while "the rest of us feel like we're merely treading water".

Sales like those of the Munch and Rothko paintings, says Casey, offer "a window into the gaping inequalities of our age". Casey points out that some economists believe that this wealth gap, which got to its widest level since 1928 before the 2008 crisis, was a major contributor to the credit bubble. The argument is that people tried to keep up with their peers through access to credit.

But the crash hasn't really reduced the wealth gap, which continues to grow, and will continue to fuel mega sales for art. The race is now on among dead painters to claim the next record-breaking auction sale, and among billionaires to claim their headline grabbing trophy. The rest of us, says Casey, can only scream.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Disqus - noscript

 Yes. But what happens if/when the global economy crashes, and the likely possible scenario of World War 3 ensues?  Sheltering in a bunker is not as much fun as careering around the planet in a private jet or a mega yacht.  Bunker walls are hardly an appropriate setting for valuable art collections.

rothko did what he wanted , for that I thank him.