Leading article: Old Masters and new money

Click to follow

The fine art market is going through quite a boom. On Monday, Sotheby's raised £88.7m in its sale of impressionist and modern art, a record sum for a London auction house. The next day its rival, Christie's, raised an equally impressive £86.9m. But this boom is not confined to London. This week Gustav Klimt's sumptuous golden portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold in the US for £73m, making it the most expensive painting ever sold. And Pablo Picasso's Dora Maar with Cat sold last month in New York for £51.8m.

The growing wealth of private individuals is stoking this boom. While two decades ago, institutions were still important players in the art market, today even the fabulously wealthy Getty Museum in Los Angeles cannot compete with the spending power of the global super rich. New money from China is beginning to compete with the purchasing power of established collectors in Europe and the US. The market for art in the Middle East and Russia is growing, due to high oil and gas prices. Record profits for those who work in finance are also a factor. As the rich get richer, it seems the price of fine art goes up too.

It is easy to be dispirited by reports of anonymous bidders spending huge amounts of cash to acquire beautiful works. The suspicion is that they are being bought only for investment purposes. The uncertainty over their final destination is distressing too. The idea of these masterpieces languishing in some bank vault, unappreciated, is not an attractive one.

Yet we have to accept that there is a free market in fine art. The wealthy are entitled to spend staggering sums on paintings if they wish. And, in one sense, these recent prices are merely the resumption of a trend. Average prices of fine art are, actually, only beginning to recover to the levels of 15 years ago, when the market slipped into the doldrums after another boom in the late 1980s.

As for the question of public access, we must remember that Old Master paintings (of which there are comparatively few in private hands) still tend to be snapped up by museums when they come on the market. Raphael's Madonna of the Pinks, acquired by the National Gallery with the aid of lottery money, is a good example. And many of the works that have been selling recently will end up on public view eventually. The persuasiveness of curators, not to mention the carrots and sticks of the taxman, will see to that. Philanthropy is not dead either. Klimt's portrait was bought by a cosmetics magnate, but will go on public display at a New York museum of German and Austrian art.

The rich have always bought paintings - and always will. But never in history have so many of us been able to enjoy the fruits of their acquisitions.