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Art: The Wonder and the Paradox

Art: The Wonder and the Paradox

Now that the Dow has officially plummeted by a greater percentage than the crash of 1929, with lows lower than the pre-Internet boom, investors who can’t buy enough gold and who have decided that cash isn’t king have jumped into art. Let me clarify that — Modern Art, art made before 1960.

Last week the collection of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his boyfriend Pierre Bergé went on sale through Christie's in Paris. Fifty-nine works of Impressionist and Modern Art sold for €374,392,500 ($484,426,456). In the worst economic climate in modern history the Laurent/Bergé collection has set an auction record for a private collection and set “a record for the most valuable auction in Europe.”

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A Mondrian-inspired dress from Yves Saint Laurent's famous 1965 collection

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Piet Mondrian’s Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir, 1922

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Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé's apartment on 55 rue de Babylone in the Seventh Arrondissement of Paris

All monies from the auction will go to medical research in the fight against AIDS and the Saint Laurent Foundation honoring the designer's work.

The art world is such a multi-headed beast, acting as both villain and victim; Or art can be a kind of Robin Hood, taking from the rich and giving to the poor; or it can become a safe haven for the greedy to be greedier.

The Swiss bank UBS, one of the major underwriters for Art Basel Miami which is America’s largest international art fair, is now under investigation for helping wealthy clients evade taxes. During the Basel Miami fairs, UBS cultivated wealthy clients by setting up special classes on purchasing art and hiding assets through off-shore subsidiaries and other alternately shady and legal dealings. Since February, the Justice Department has been investigating UBS and their clients, focusing on their art fair shenanigans. As Huffpo writer Thomas B. Edsall puts it, Obama is now on the hunt for revenue, with grand ambitions to cut the deficit in half by 2012.

This week, the International Art Fairs have descended on New York. The main fair, The New York Armory along with the accompanying satellite fairs — Scope, Pulse, Volta, Bridge — bring in the high and mighty for their seasonal feeding.

Dealers of contemporary art are nervous, as they should be, wondering if sales will cover their overhead. Dealers of emerging and contemporary artists rely on the disposable income of young and aspiring collectors whose wealth has been severely damaged over the last few months. Who cares, you might say, but this is how the trickle down happens if you are an artist. Starving artists get shown by emerging galleries, who are then patronized by young collectors and, if you're lucky, the slow migration up the ladder of wealth continues. Meanwhile, the bigger collectors — when not hiding dollars in the Bahamas — run to safe modern works of very dead artists, and on days they've ripped off the government in an elaborate ponzi scheme, they may daringly buy the work of an emerging artist.

Our photographer Megan and I will be visiting the art fairs over the next few days in the hopes of bringing you the paradox and the wonder of it all… stay tuned.