The Unstoppable Art Market: Is A Billion-Dollar Painting On Its Way?

Expensive exhibition
Expensive exhibition
Catherine Cochard

GENEVA — Gauguin must be rolling over in his grave.

The French painter, who fought all his life to be able to live off his work and ended up destitute and depressed, would be stunned to hear that just over 100 years after his death, his painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo (Tahitian for “When Will You Marry?”) has become the world’s most expensive work of art. Oil-rich Qatar made the acquisition in February for $300 million from Rudolf Staechlin, a retired Switzerland-based businessman and collector who had inherited it from his father.

But this stratospheric price is not just a one-off. It coincides with the unstoppable rise of art prices since the beginning of last decade. And there’s no shortage of examples, including the legal battle between Yves Bouvier and Dmitry Rybolovlev, in which the former is accused of having overcharged the latter, one of the world’s biggest art collectors. At the heart of this scandal are masterpieces such as Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, for which the Russian paid $127,5 million, Modigliani’s Nude on a Blue Cushion, also bought from the Geneva-based art dealer for $118 million.

Modigliani’s "Nude on a Blue Cushion" — Source: Wikimedia Commons

This judicial and artistic affair also illustrates the difficulty of applying objective criteria to art prices. Four main factors can explain such a relentless rise.

The sustained boom in prices can first be explained by the ever bigger and wealthier clientele interested in works of art and their acquisition. According to the Billionaire Census 2014 study carried out by Wealth-X and UBS, the global billionaire population between July 2013 and June 2014 grew by 7%. In just one year, 155 people became new billionaires, taking the total to 2,325.

Rich people used to be rich in terms of estate or assets, but not so much in terms of cash, like they are today,” explains journalist Georgina Adam, who writes for the Financial Times and whose 2014 book Big Bucks – The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century explains how the sector has evolved since the early 2000s.

This growing billionaire population from developed or developing economies have money to spend and invest. For many of them, art — in the same way as luxury cars or prêt-à-porter — is an entry pass of a globalized way of life accessible through their wealth. To win these customers’ loyalty, auctions houses have made it their mission to pass on their taste for art.

The scarcer a commodity is, the higher its price rises. For art, this rule only applies in part. But to compensate for the declining stock of works from deceased artists, auction houses found the perfect trick.

In the 1970s, the works of art of ancient masters were being exchanged at the highest prices. Then, realizing that the offer was diminishing, auction houses largely contributed to bringing impressionism and modern art back into fashion in the 1980s and 1990s. But then again, the stock was diminishing fast. The best pieces disappeared in museum collections never to be seen again on the market, since works acquired by public institutions can normally not be resold (although there are exceptions).

“The source of growth for auction houses then became contemporary art,” says Georgina Adam. It was a real honey pot that offered the advantage of not being about to run dry. Most of these artists are still alive, producing and are even encouraged to produce so as to have enough supply to meet the demand. They frequent the stars and billionaires who collect their work, and themselves grow more celebrated in the process.

The guarantees offered by auction houses also contribute to the prices’ upward spiral. To be sure to have the best pieces in their auction blocks, auctioneers promise sellers ever higher minimum sale prices that they’re ready — and sometimes forced — to pay from their own pocket if the object is sold for less.

“Auctions houses did that a lot in 2006 and 2007,” notes Adam. “Then, with the crisis in 2008, few items reached the guaranteed prices so auctioneers had to pay the difference. Lately, they’ve started offering guaranteed purchase prices again, particularly through third parties — such as Qatar — who pledge to buy certain items for a price agreed to in advance.”

With such a system, the seller is assured to earn a minimum sum that guards against the object being “burned” during the sale by a low price or non-sale that could undercut its value forever.

After the 2008 crisis, investors looked for other ways to yield a profit. “Art turned out to be an interesting investment, attracting always more cash from those discouraged by traditional assets such as stocks or estate,” explains Anne Laure Bandle from the University of Geneva in her book The Art of Pricing the Priceless.

These new connoisseurs not only have enormous financial capabilities but will most importantly always be careful that the price of their acquisitions continue to rise, just like that of any other financial product.

Observers are wondering when the art prices will reach their upper limit. Some even predict that the art market today is “too big to fail” and that in case of a slowdown, its main actors will be forced to support it to protect their investments.

“I’m certain I will live to see a work of art be sold for $1 billion,” Francis Outred, head of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s Europe, is quoted as saying in Georgina Adam’s book. His comment is equal parts enthusiastic and cynical, the perfect illustration of the current philosophy prevailing in the art market: It’s not about the work’s value but about its price tag.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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