Are We Looking at a New Art Bubble?

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A contemporary art auction at Christie's in New York Tuesday night exceeded the highest estimate of $330 million, bringing in a whopping $388.5 million and firmly establishing a new contemporary art boom that looks suspiciously familiar. It was the highest total amount ever in the field, The New York Times' Souren Melikian reports. One painting in particular, Mark Rothko's Orange, Red, Yellow, set a world auction record as telephone bidders ratcheted its selling price up to just below $87 million. "Christie’s estimate was $35 million to $45 million, plus the sale charge of more than 15 percent," Melikian wrote. Coming just days after Edvard Munch's The Scream set a world record for the highest price ever paid for a single work of art, at $120 million, The Wall Street Journal's Kelly Crow is absolutely right in pointing to "the new boom" in art sales.

What follows a boom? Busts. Not being art experts, all we can do is look at the numbers, which ring familiar to those posted just before the last art market crash in 2008. At the end of that year, as the market collapsed, Bloomberg handily traced some of the high-dollar sales, which came close to those posted by Christie's Tuesday night. In May, 2008, for example, Francis Bacon's Triptych, 1976 sold for $86.3 million.

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By October of that year, as the financial crisis hit, an art market researcher told Bloomberg's Scott Rayburn and Katya Kasakina, "the mood has changed." By early 2009, reports Ben Lewis in the BBC documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, " the contemporary art auction market was down 75 per cent, auction houses had recorded record losses and were rapidly downsizing." These things go in cycles: Chinese art prices also sagged in 2009, but were back to booming as of January, according to Reuters' Felix Salmon. By now, we should be suspicious of bubbles -- art, housing, or otherwise. But for now one thing is clear: People who have money to spend are spending it on art.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.