The art market may be obscene – but should we be so angry?


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The Independent Culture

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye is a rising star of the art world. The 36-year-old already has work in the Tate and is a hotly tipped contender for this year’s Turner Prize, factors which lent an added frisson to the sale at Christie’s last weekend of her brooding portrait Garnets. I stood and watched as the Prada-clad staff taking telephone bids battled over the painting, which sold way over the £58,000 estimate.

What I witnessed is just a tiny cog turning in the mighty engine of the art market, which has been running at full throttle this month as wealthy collectors gathered in London for the autumn auctions and the Frieze Art Fair. In November, the whole shebang kicks off again in New York, where sale highlights include a Francis Bacon triptych of Lucian Freud that is expected to top $100m.

But this spectacle of the super-rich gorging on art seems to be making some commentators queasy. “Deeply sick” and “obscene” is how Andrew Marr described it in an interview in the Radio Times, while Jonathan Jones in The Guardian wrote: “Frieze is the temple to what art has become in our age: a millionaire’s toy.”

What surprises me is that these guys see anything new to complain about. Weren’t the Medici the oligarchs of their day, spending their ill-gotten gains on work by Michelangelo? And didn’t Henry Tate lavish his sugar profits on the paintings of Millais and Landseer that now form the backbone of our national gallery of modern art? It seems a little late to worry about art becoming the plaything of tyrants and trillionaires.

I accept this state of affairs for several reasons. Firstly, I feel no envy. Art in its broadest sense has taught me that being a man of property and possessions rarely leads to contentment; you only have to read Henry James or watch Citizen Kane to understand that. Real life bears this out: does Charles Saatchi strike you as a happy man?

More importantly, though, I feel no anger about the age-old cycle of art because evidence suggests that the best of it will end up in our free museums anyway. Last year, the Arts Council’s Acceptance in Lieu scheme, which allows people to settle inheritance tax bills with artwork donations, took £20m-worth of art into public ownership.

So it pleases me to think that Yiadom-Boakye’s Garnets might one day be nationalised to join Britain’s greatest collection of art: the one owned by us.