One of Britain's most eminent artists has criticised the "distasteful" trend for ever-rising art prices – just days before a leading auction house launches a sale that could fetch more than £72m, smashing all records for the contemporary art market.
Even as Sotheby's prepares its evening sale featuring masterpieces by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon, one of the original group of British "pop artists" of the early 1960s accused art dealers of placing inflated price tags on works that were not always worth the money.
Gerald Laing, most famous for his images of Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina, said he found the commercialisation of the artistic process "revolting".
"The creative act is now being made by dealers who can convince people that a Jeff Koons sculpture is worth however many millions of dollars. On the other hand, it might not be a very difficult sculpture to make. What we are talking about is the banality of the work and the creative processes of the dealers who raise their prices," he said. "I think it's pretty revolting. The quality of some of the work fades into insignificance compared to the deals being made. I have heard how the major dealers of contemporary art can look at you and convince you that this price is right. Auction houses are riding on the back of this."
Laing, a painter and sculptor whose own work goes on sale next week at The Fine Art Society – but at prices in the thousands rather than millions – said even the £18m estimated value of a Francis Bacon work, Study of a Nude with Figure in Mirror, seemed rather high. The sale next Wednesday will include works by Peter Doig, the subject of a retrospective at Tate Britain, Gilbert and George, whose work featured in a Tate Modern show last year, and Warhol's Three Self Portraits, painted a year before his death and valued at more than £10m.
Oliver Barker, senior specialist in the contemporary art department at Sotheby's, said the rising prices were not just "dealer-inspired" but also inspired by the quality of the art itself. This sale was so strong, he said, partly because "key lots" were modern masterpieces of extraordinarily high value.
"A lot of people who are selling are seduced into doing so because they see the market is very strong. Some of these works have an extraordinary premium and this sale is the fruition of many years of talking to clients about the financial climate and what a buoyant level the art market is at.
"There has never been a time before when the passion and appetite for contemporary art has been as strong as this," he said.
Melanie Gerlis, art market editor at The Art Newspaper, said that the current boom may partly be down to the rush to put great works on the market for fear that the climate will change. "It's a seller's market right now and no one knows how long that will last. People might think, 'if I don't sell now, the market might not be as good next year'," she said.
Ms Gerlis added that the art market typically tended to "lag" behind other markets by up to 18 months, so it was perhaps not surprising that the impact of the credit crunch, which has sent financial markets tumbling, had yet to be seen in the prices fetched by works of art.