It’s no secret that the art world is deeply ambivalent about money. But what’s even more perplexing is its uncomfortable relationship with the financial world. Since the beginning of the most recent run in the Contemporary art market (circa 2005) there has been a constant undertone of fear that hedge fund managers would distort the art market. Jonathan Jones captures this idea nicely in his pre-Frieze post wondering how trophy works of art by Warhol, Hirst and Leonardo could be worth nine-figure sums:
The reasons for the enduring, and gobsmacking, wealth of the art world are not hard to see. The money that funded the art boom before 2008 came from the financial sector. Hedge-fund star Steve Cohen bought Damien Hirst’s shark for $8m in one feted episode.
What happened to Cohen in 2008? He did fine – Forbes ranks him today at the 35th richest man in America. And that is the obvious point. The financial elite whose irresponsible dealings and in some cases manifest incompetence did so much to cause the 2008 crisis did not, themselves, come crashing down – they continued to prosper. Now they speculate against the governments that stepped in to save the City and Wall Street. Will the ongoing second crisis bring down this elite? Want to bet on it?
Art collectors coming from the world of finance isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. One only has to look at Eli Broad or Charles Schwab to see major, market-moving collectors who made substantial portions of their wealth from the financial world. One can go further back and point to Jock Whitney who formed the first Venture Capital firm and collected works of art that were eventually sold for record-breaking prices, including Picasso’s Garcon a la pipe which made $104m six years ago.
That’s anecdotal evidence, of course. And the problem with anecdotal evidence is that it doesn’t really tell us much. Worse, it warps our perceptions. Hedge fund buyers may keep art advisors well-employed but there’s no solid evidence that they drive the art market, even the contemporary art market. Yes. There are several prominent hedgie collectors—Ganek, Sender, Cohen—and many more Private Equity and other financial players who buy art as part of their social lives—Schwarzmann, Wilbur Ross.
Unfortunately, the art world gives us very little data on who spent how much on art. So we can only argue against the anecdotal evidence with more anecdotal evidence.
Most art buying seems to be done by business owners with sufficient cash flow to fund their interest in art. Arnault, Pinault, Brant, the Rubells, Graff, these buyers do not depend upon the financial markets to fund their acquisitions. Nor does Pinchuk or any of the Asian buyers who have entered the art market. Indeed, as art continues to be seen as and used as a store of value, more buyers are entering the art market as a substitute for financial markets.
That means they are putting money into art that comes from industries or commerce that they would previously have put into financial assets of some sort. Will this last? Who knows. But it will only stop when that money is diverted to some other purpose.
The Fine Art of Making Money (Jonathan Jones/Guardian)