Lance Charnes's Reviews > Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century

Big Bucks by Georgina Adam
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bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended for: readers who like to mix money porn with their art education

It's hard to escape the breathless news stories about the megabucks art market, even if your idea of art is limited to the comics pages in the newspaper. Every auction seems to break another record as very rich people pay increasingly crazy money for artworks on which the paint is barely dry. Shiny new museums named after people you've never heard of are springing up everywhere, presenting the kind of art that used to inspire your mom to say, "You kids could do that kind of thing when you were six years old..."

Georgina Adams' Big Bucks shows that this frothy contemporary art market is yet another symptom of the ever-increasing global concentration of wealth. While a few of the big boys are making mint, this bubble isn't an unalloyed good; as previous crashes in the art market have shown, it's the small players who will get hurt the worst when the music finally stops.

The author is a journalist who's spent the past three decades covering the global art market for The Art Newspaper , the Financial Times and BBC WorldWide. She's been to many of the major art events and interviewed a great many of the players (artists, gallerists, advisors, museum directors, freelance curators, collectors, brokers...). It's safe to say that she knows where the bodies are buried, and who buried them.

It used to be, not so long ago, that art collecting was a relatively genteel pastime in which old money pursued old works of art. Auction houses were for the trade (mostly dealers), museums still bought on the open market, and collectors would lend or donate their holdings to museums if they wanted the world to see them.

So what happened? The author leads us through a collision of factors that have pumped a great deal of hot air and laughing gas into the market since the 1990s:

- A historically large but globally small number of people have become rich beyond the wildest dreams of rich people in all previous generations. Many of these got their money through finance, which rewards aggression and risk-taking -- the sort of people who thrive on auctions and placing high-stakes bets in a volatile market.
- These people are constantly seeking new asset classes to exploit for profit, or to shelter their money. After you've bought your second Gulfstream, third wife, fifth yacht and eighth home, where do you go? Art has become a high-performing asset class (better than real estate, on a par with the S&P 500) since the last time the market collapsed.
- Like anyone else, megarich people want to gain social acceptance and cachet from their peer group. Collecting art is a proven way to do just that. Adam says, "Art has become to this age what rock was to the 1960s -- the hip place to be."
- Old-school collectors bought art because it spoke to them, or they appreciated the craftsmanship, or they just loved it. The new collectors are buying for investment, relying on advisors to pick pieces that will bring in a healthy return in a short period. In this case, art is a share of stock that you can hang on a wall.
- The major auction houses started directly pursuing high-worth collectors, bypassing the dealers who used to be both the houses' primary buyers and the primary sellers of art to those same collectors.
- A growing shortage of collectible "old" (pre-1940) art started pushing collectors into contemporary art, of which there's an endless supply because the artists are mostly still working.
- An incestuous network of advisors, freelance curators, and major dealers eagerly started declaring certain contemporary artists to be "important" and "collectible," unleashing the platinum cards on their works and quickly driving up the price.

Adam serves as savvy tour guide through this parallel universe, contrasting how things used to work in the old days (1970s-80s) with how business gets done nowadays. She starts each chapter with a vivid anecdote that shows how over-the-top things get when an unlimited stream of gold flows into a market with less-than-usual regulation, chronic problems with transparency, and a pricing regime that makes the American healthcare system look like a model of rationality. Among the more intriguing consequences:

- In 1970, there were three significant contemporary art fairs (the dealers' revenge against the auction houses); in 2012, there were well north of 200. There are now so many biennales and fairs and so forth that there's no longer any room on the calendar for more.
- Major collectors are now no longer donating their art to museums; they're building their own museums. This trend is especially visible in the West, where it directly competes with traditional museums (the Broad Contemporary went up across the street from the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art), but even more prevalent in the emerging world, where there's little state presence in museums or public art.
- To woo the shrinking number of major collectors who don't have the horsepower or interest in building their own culture shrine, museums are increasingly staging special exhibits that feature artworks held by collectors who have relationships with the museums. This works to the advantage of both: the museum gets (for a short time) a piece of art it could never afford to buy on the open market, and the exhibition validates the "importance" of that artist, increasing the piece's value to the collector.
- Because there's only a small circle of people who serve the needs of the megarich collector, and they all read the same trends, collections (especially of contemporary art) are starting to look more and more alike, with the same artists' names popping up everywhere. The favored artists have to become like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, the James Pattersons of contemporary art, who churn out work in industrial scales. Art becomes a commodity, a luxury good. It's not random that François Pinault, who owns Christie's, is both a leading collector of contemporary art and the owner of (among other things) Chateau Latour and Gucci.

The author ties together these and many other threads through the course of eight extensively footnoted thematic chapters in this shortish (184 pages) book. Adam's a journalist and writes like one; some of the chapters have the flavor of extended feature articles in the likes of The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. There's a certain amount of mostly unavoidable overlap and repetition that serves more to reinforce her points than to irritate you. No pictures, but bonus points are given for copious endnotes and a useful bibliography. You don't have to be an art expert to understand what's going on; this is a book about business, finance and culture, and art's just the McGuffin. A good internet connection won't go to waste, though.

Big Bucks is a highly readable field guide to the jungles of the contemporary art market. It's also in many ways an exercise in money porn, and a profile of the top 0.1% doing what they do best. You may grow queasy reading about people who could end world hunger with their pocket change if they bought a couple fewer Murakami anime takeoffs, or you may find it aspirational. In any event, you'll learn a lot about how the top end of the art market works today and how it got this way, and maybe add a couple entries onto your bucket list.
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Reading Progress

February 5, 2017 – Shelved
April 30, 2017 – Started Reading
May 12, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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message 1: by Aaron (new)

Aaron This took my criticism to a whole new level. Thanks for the review.


Lance Charnes Thanks! Glad you liked it.


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