Tim Cornwell: Art money in tough times is on modern

THE press release that dropped in the inbox from Christie’s this week with the latest multi-zillion auction tally was a great relief. Why? Amid the madness of the art market, the painting Piccadilly Circus by LS Lowry had sold for £5.6 million.

With contemporary and abstract artists knocking down records like nine-pins, the price of the Lowry seemed a minor victory for something more solid. The painter and his lonely stick-figures are described by the experts as “popular” rather than “important”.

But here was proof that an artist who fixed the image of a time and place in Britain, with mournful but child-like urban and industrial scenes, kept pace in a market where money is madly spinning. It’s long since Lowry has been lionised by art critics, but thirteen works from the collection of Lord Forte sold for over £17m, all told. You can enjoy Lowry as a child; as an adult, look for his draftsmanship, or the emptiness of his lesser-known, bleak seascapes.

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Even “seasoned auction-goers”, it’s been reported this month, have been watching the money splurged on modern and contemporary art with awe. Four paintings by the early abstract expressionist Clyfford Still, for example – not quite a global household name – sold for over $100m at Sotheby’s in New York, about twice the estimated price.

Born in North Dakota, the artist, who died in 1980, sold relatively few paintings to private buyers in his life time; it means there are fewer on the market. The biggest price was for his work 1949-A-No. 1A, an abstract in black and dark red. It sold for $62m, about £40m.

The reported buyer was a hedge fund boss. It only underlined the irony when Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered outside the auction house to jeer and tussle with police, joining a union protest over the treatment of art handling workers.

The splurge has continued on the likes of German abstract artist Gerhard Richter, with eight abstract paintings by him selling for nearly £47m. A single work by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein fetched the dollar equivalent of £27m. One of the best interpretations of what’s happening in the art markets came from Souren Melikian, art editor of the International Herald Tribune. He has been a sceptical observer for some years now of how the art market seems to pursue a different trajectory from the rest of the world economy. With billionaires worried about plunging stocks, feverishly looking for “tangible assets”, he asked wryly just how tangible these assets are.

Among the big sellers was Andy Warhol’s Silver Liz, a silvered silk-screen version of Elizabeth Taylor painted by Warhol in 1963; it sold for $16m. Was Warhol a great artist, or a former advertising man with an eye for poster art? Irrelevant.

“Warhol has been hailed for so long that doubts concerning the artistic nature of silkscreen ink work based on snapshots would hardly ever arise these days,” Melikian wrote. The most extraordinary prices, he concluded, might have more to do with distrust in the financial markets, than passion for art. Buyers of simple abstract paintings don’t have to waste too much time studying the details of the purchase.

This is not to downplay the gifts of an artist like Richter – a personal favourite. But with multi-million purchases of art as investment, buyers have a keen eye on where the works have been shown. If they’ve featured in major museum collections or shows, they acquire blue-chip status – better, say, than Italian government debt. One of Louis Bourgeois’ giant spiders, familiar to art-going audiences from London’s South Bank to Chicago, picked up more than $10m.

But the stratospheric prices disguise the weakness of investing in art for money, on a small or large scale. It’s easy to forget that the auction house take on a typical artwork’s sale, from buyer and seller, amounts to as much as 40 per cent, in a market where both buyers and sellers can opt to operate anonymously.

Oscar Wilde described fox-hunting as the unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable.

There was something of that flavour in the big spenders chasing down art’s biggest names, in a market riding a bizarre bubble of its own.