Before researching this list, I – a cultural layman – naively expected to see a passage where money meets majesty, where wealthy art lovers brag about their specimens of genius and my own knowledge Scarcity turns into understanding and appreciation.
Instead, what I found was a dirty mess of crime, propaganda, economic anomalies and some pretty crappy art.
The total sale price of these ten paintings is more than the average Briton earns over a lifetime of 1,4032. While this is important, let’s take a closer look at some of the factors behind the list.
Forget art, forget beauty, forget historical significance. The prices for some of these paintings are so ridiculous for one simple reason. And, if you’re anything like me, that’s what triggers that lovely warm glow of schadenfreude…
The world of high-end art trading has always been a cesspit of fakes, fraud and criminal activity. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the current list of the most expensive paintings includes two auctions that became one of the biggest scandals in the art world: the so-called “Bouville affair.”
Since 2003, Russian fertilizer giant Dimitry Rybolovlev has been buying a lot of high-end art through Swiss art dealer Yves Bouvier. The relationship seemed fine until 2015, when Rybolovlev accused Bouvier of overcharging him for purchases over a 10-year period. As the paintings are some of the most sought-after in the world, the financial scale involved is staggering. According to Rybolovlev, Bouvier inflated the prices of no fewer than 38 works he bought through him, defrauding the poor oligarch of more than $1 billion in the process.
Klimt’s Wasserschlangen II and Rothko’s
The Rothko sale is a good example of how Bouvier works. Rybolovlev is under the impression that he bought the piece for 140 million euros from French winemakers Christian and Cherise Moueix, with Bouvier acting as the middleman. It turns out, however, that Bouvier actually bought the painting from the couple for just 80 million euros a few months ago. So after selling it to an unwitting Rybolovlev for an astounding markup of almost 60%, Bouvier made a cheeky €60 million for his offshore account 3.
Along with a series of ongoing civil and criminal lawsuits in various countries, the Bouvier affair has snowballed, illuminating the dark side of every corner of the art world. For instance, Rypolovlev sued Sotheby’s last year after the auction house sold 12 of the 38 works of art to him. Seeking $380 million in damages, he claimed the venerable auction house “instilled [Rybolovlev’s] trust and confidence in Bouvier and made the entire edifice of fraud reasonable and credible”.
With so many threads still playing, it will take us a long time to get to the end of this saga. Although, as we’ll see later, that’s not a bad thing for the troubled Rybolovlev…
Propaganda, Postmodernism and Bad Taste
You might have been expecting the world’s most expensive paintings to be dominated by classical styles – perhaps Renaissance religious art, or Turner’s atmospheric landscapes, or Van Gogh’s swirling colours. Instead, the most common styles – occupying four of the top ten – are the peculiar daubs, curves and spots of Abstract Expressionism.
For many of us, the sight of de Kooning’s hollow smear or Rothko’s simple color patch is more confusing than awe-inspiring. But while laymen like me may see nothing but pretentious emptiness and frivolous mediocrity, those with vested interests (whether financial, cultural, or professional) tend to see seminal masterpieces and, of course, a big pile of money.
So how did such divisive graffiti become the most coveted prize in art history?
Abstract Expressionism ostensibly stems from the rejection of postwar authoritarianism and conformity by American left-wing artists in the 1940s. It’s hardly surprise that institutions first avoided it. Its simplicity and senselessness were mocked by cultural commentators, and US politicians criticised it for its subversive goal by equating it with the Cold War monster of communism.
However, the CIA saw something else in the burgeoning art movement – something they believed could help them win the cultural battle against the Soviet Union.
The predominant art form in the Soviet Union at the time was the rigid, state-sanctioned style of socialist realism. The CIA recognized that Abstract Expressionism, with its unorthodox, chaotic and hyper-subjective approach, was the antithesis of the Soviet style. But, more importantly, it’s American.
So the CIA secretly founded and funded the Cultural Freedom Conference to promote America—and Abstract Expressionism—as a beacon of artistic and intellectual freedom. As many sources have documented in recent years, the organization is “a gathering of intellectuals, writers, historians, poets and artists, founded in 1950 with CIA funding by one of the CIA’s Agent Management … at its peak, it had offices in 35 countries and published more than two dozen magazines.”
The multi-year, multi-million-dollar event was a huge success, pushing the art style to the forefront of the world’s cultural landscape. Through its global network of agents and proxies, whether intentionally or not, the CIA funded various high-profile exhibitions of abstract expressionist artists, the most famous of whom became very wealthy and famous as a result.
Although still ignored by many, the CIA’s secretive role in promoting Abstract Expressionism was made public decades ago. In the years since, this style, and the subsequent postmodern styles it influenced, have become a staple of the world’s artistic output. Today, works by Rothko, Pollock and their modern imitators hang on the walls of government agencies, corporate offices, soulless hotels and overpriced restaurants around the world.
So is the prevalence of postmodern gibberish the CIA’s fault? maybe not.
The Cultural Arms Race in the Gulf States
Forty percent of the buyers of the ten most expensive paintings were the filthy rich rulers (and their proxies) of Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Over the years, the two hostile nations have been using their vast oil wealth to house large collections of notable art and historical artifacts in museums5. This is part of their ongoing public relations attempt to reshape their country as a modern global cultural hub.
In addition to valuing Saudi Arabia from its influence, Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family has been acquiring expensive art from around the globe since coming to power in the mid-1990s.
As many commentators have suggested, Qatar’s mission to create a “world-class” art collection in such a short period of time has helped drive up prices across the industry. They’re also not very picky when it comes to buying, such as buying and commissioning all kinds of junk from Damien Enhurst, the least talented hype magnet in modern art. This art splurge makes sense when you realize that Qatar needs to fill the plethora of art galleries that have opened in the capital Doha over the past decade and the dozens that are still under construction.
Determined not to be overtaken by their Qatari rivals, the Saudi royal family 6 upped the ante significantly in 2017 by purchasing the most expensive artwork in history. Not only did the purchase of the Salvator Mundi beat the existing record price by a whopping 50%, but it also stands out for another
. The Savior, Leonardo
There is no doubt that Leonardo da Vinci did paint the original Salvador Mundi around 1500. However, the painting’s eventual ending is somewhat ambiguous and is further confused by numerous copies made by the painter’s students.
What is now Salvator Mundi was unquestionably once a stucco “mess” made by an unknown artist and bought for $1,000 at a New Orleans auction in 2005. After years of repair, reevaluation, and speculation, the picture has been shakily attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Our old friend Yves Bouvier paid $83 million for it in 2013.
. He immediately sold it to his bewildered close friend Dmitry Rybolovlev for $127.5 million.
Luckily for Rypolovlev (and I told you, it wasn’t a bad thing for him), the Saudi royal family has decided to pay a record $450.3 million for them at the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. friend bought this piece. It’s a bold move considering the painting’s provenance is so dubious that the museum itself refuses to display it.
As delightful as it is (in the way of “Mason Jesus”), you might be wondering why anyone would pay nearly $1 billion for a painting that many believe is only worth a fraction?
Even though these are crazy rich people who want to build a robot city in the desert, it makes perfect sense when you realize that this was a hugely successful PR campaign for the new museum and the Saudi crown prince. Bin Salman himself. Surely makes more headlines than his shameful war on Yemen, doesn’t it?
Naked, Amedeo Modigliani
At the end of the day, this list isn’t about art, it’s about money (which is why this article exists, and probably why you’re reading it, after all). For the super-rich who buy and sell, art is just a means to an end. Whether art is purchased for money laundering, public image promotion, or just financial speculation, the end result is basically the same: more wealth (and of course the power it confers).
The idea of art as an investment has been around for a long time, but got a systematic boost in the 1960s when e Times of London teamed up with Sotheby’s to regularly publish an index of rising art prices at auction.
In the decades since, the corporate culture industry on the one hand and the parasitic financial industry on the other have driven the trend of “art as investment”. These, coupled with the ever-increasing
Woman of Algiers, Picasso
You can almost hear Deloitte’s tycoons salivating in their bi-annual Art & Finance Report as they go crazy over the mega-money stats: “There are an estimated $1.62 trillion in ultra-high net worth individuals (ultra-high net worth individuals). net worth individuals) wealth was allocated to art and collectibles in 2016 and is expected to reach $2.7 trillion by 2026.
With such predictions, the financial industry has been working hard to create new financial instruments—“innovative” loan products, securitized funds, derivatives, and even blockchain technology—to further inflate and extract the financial potential of art, which does not Not surprisingly.
But it’s not just the potential profits that make art a favorite investment for the rich and crafty — it’s also the reason for the utter lack of regulation and transparency in the industry. This makes art the perfect investment vehicle for the world’s increasingly wealthy elite. After all, these are the people who expand their wealth by circumventing the dangerous regulations that the rest of us disregard.
Well, as many commentators have pointed out, speculative bubbles and collapses in the art market seem to reflect the broader global economy. If we’re about to end the current art bubble, the upcoming pop music could affect us all.