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Rich art collectors 'know the price of everything – and the value of nothing'

Bonhams' head of contemporary art tells Nick Clark that works are being treated simply as investments

Art dealers have been reduced to mere "commodity brokers" as the super-rich have lost interest in the aesthetic value of major works and instead obsess about their monetary worth, according to one of the industry's most experienced auctioneers.

Anthony McNerney, head of contemporary art at Bonhams, said ahead of a flurry of sales in London this month with work valued at £500m on the market: "Many more people talk about art as an investment. A lot ask: 'Is this investment potential? Can we see it as an asset class?' I'm nervous about that. Art is a very volatile market.

"A lot of us were frustrated, it is always about the estimates and the deal, not the art. We wanted to talk about the works of art. It's whether the art works are important.

"When I started at Christie's many years ago clients would ask me about the work of art or the artist. In late 2007 they started asking: 'what's it going to cost me and how much will it be worth.' That's when you become a commodities broker."

Art market adviser Tania Buckrell Pos agrees. "A lot more buyers with an investment point of view are coming into the market," she told Bloomberg.

Collector Charles Saatchi has also criticised the new "super rich art-buying crowd" as "vulgar and depressingly shallow". He asked whether they liked the art or just wanted "big-brand name pictures".

Mr McNerney said the trend to target big names really started in 2005 until the market dried up in the wake of Lehman Brother's collapse three years later. "It has restarted now with prices going to a huge level," he said.

A fortnight of major auctions started at Christie's last week, where sales topped £135m. This followed a record breaking 2011 for art auctions. Artists included Mark Rothko, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

Notable sales included the £19.1m paid for Henry Moore's Reclining Figure: Festival, almost four times the top end of the pre-sale estimate. A Joan Miro, Painting-Poem, went for £16.8m.

Major rival Sotheby's did not fare so well after works by Miro and Gustav Klimt went unsold. Yet L'Entrée de Giverny en Hiver by Claude Monet sold for £8.2m on a night that brought in £78.9m overall.

Mr McNerney said that while contemporary art buyers have been "pretty much the same for the last 15 to 20 years" they now face huge competition from emerging market investors who are driving up the prices. "Traditional buyers are being pushed a lot higher on cost by people from the Middle East, India, China, Latin America," he said. As if to confirm his statement, it emerged this month that Qatar had bought The Card Players by Cezanne for a world record $250m at the end of last year.

The art market was "remarkably strong", he added. After Lehman, the buying stopped, but was kick started by the sale of L'Homme qui marche by Alberto Giacometti for £65m in 2010. "Everything seemed to come back on line," Mr McNerney said. "Quality will out." The Bonhams sale on Monday night saw a Frank Auerbach charcoal and chalk drawing of Freud sell for £480,000, close to the top of the range.