In 1987, Van Gogh's Sunflowers sold at auction at Christie's for just under £25m, then the highest price ever fetched for a painting. "There are only 10-15 people in the world, and the Getty Museum, who can afford that sort of money," one dealer observed at the time, as the buyer's identity remained concealed.
The expansion of global wealth comes illustrated even more sharply by one anecdote in Georgina Adam's new book Big Bucks. Christie's didn't use paddles for that auction: they weren't introduced until 1988, one Christie's dealer recounted to Adam. The circle of people rich enough to be bidding for Van Dyck and Van Gogh was still so small that the auctioneer knew everyone in the room by name. (The Sunflowers was sold to a telephone bidder for a company in Japan.)
In the last quarter of a century, auction houses, once creaky bastions of old money, have moved into the luxury sphere. Art prices go ever higher, individuals wanting to conceal their purchases ask for VIP skybooths away from the throng, art advisors, dealers and investors catch the coat-tails and take commissions, and the auction houses themselves are dressing sharper. Christie's was bought in 1998 by the luxury goods boss Francois Pinault, while the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy boss, Bernard Arnault, bought the 18th-century auction house Phillips that same year, though he gave it up a few years later.
Adam, who writes regularly for the FT and The Art Newspaper, where she was art-market editor, conducts a grand sweep of how we got here in this pacy and well-written book. One big change has been the appetite for work by living artists, who can create to the demands of dealers, and are brands in themselves. Jeff Koons produces replicas of his balloon dogs in varied colours, just as Andy Warhol duplicated prints, only sub-divided again to maximise profit.
Adam also gets as close as one can to describing the cartels that are building up between artists, dealers and collectors to force up prices, and broaches the unpleasant truth that art has become a vehicle for illicit as well as hard-earned wealth.
Big Bucks is more than just a portrait of the art market: it is also a portrait of the global elite, the twin demons of vanity and greed hovering in the background. There's no better way into that than viewing their art collections.