Collectables: Art’s frothy period

Paintings are going for record amounts, but is art in a bubble? Chris Carter reports

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Paintings are going for record amounts, but is it a bubble? Chris Carter reports.

An astonishing $2bn changed hands at New York auction houses in a single week just a fortnight ago. Christie's brought in $1.1bn with its Impressionist and Modern Art, and Post-War and Contemporary Art sales. Jeff Koons' Rabbit from 1986 sold for $91.1m, setting a new highest price for an artwork by a living artist. Bouilloire et Fruits by Paul Czanne from the late 1880s fetched $59.3m. And Robert Rauschenberg's Buffalo II from 1964 sold for $88.8m.

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At Sotheby's, a 1890 painting by Claude Monet from his Meules (Haystacks) series raised $110.7m. It was the first time an Impressionist painting has broken the $100m barrier. When it last came up for sale in 1986, it cost just $2.5m, notes the BBC. Other high-profile lots at Sotheby's included Mark Rothko's 1960 Untitled, which sold for $51m, and Francis Bacon's 1952 Study for a Head, which fetched $50.4m. Auction house Phillips raised $135m, with Willem de Kooning's Untitled XVI from 1976 selling for $10.3m.

Changing tastes

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"The art market may be entering its Frothy Period," says Kelly Crow in The Wall Street Journal. Collectors left behind their fears from the past few seasons and "splurged on masterpieces at the highest levels". In "another hint of exuberance", buyers also paid record sums for "young, buzzy painters", such as Brian Donnelly (known as Kaws). His 2012 portrait of the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, entitled The Walk Home, sold at Phillips for $6m, "well above its $800,000 high estimate".

Indeed, says Tim Schneider on Artnet News, Monet's Haystack may have broken records at Sotheby's, but the price "somewhat belied the mood in the room and, to some extent, the reality of the bidding". William Bouguereau's La Jeunesse de Bacchus (1884) had been valued at $25m-$35m, for instance. It failed to sell. Auctioneer Harry Dalmeny conceded defeat at $18m, but only "after nearly two excruciating minutes of repeating the stalled figure like a failed mantra to ward off misfortune".

Kenny Schachter, also writing for Artnet News, disagrees. Indeed, the "only froth is in the reportage I was sitting in the same room at Sotheby's and saw something very different." Yes, the Bouguereau failed to sell, but this "football-field-sized kitsch Old Master-redux painting" was given a "stupid estimate". The highest price fetched for a painting by Bouguereau was set in 2000. It was $3.5m, "which is where it belongs The only bubble that should burst is the perennial disparagement of the giant in plain sight: the art market." You have to appreciate its resilience.

Even so, "tastes have changed", says Scott Reyburn in The New York Times. "Impressionist and modern works that lack appeal to a contemporary sensibility can struggle to hold their value." douard Vuillard's post-impressionist La Table de Toilette, for example, sold at auction for $7.7m in 1989. This month, and three decades later, it sold for just $8m at Christie's. And while it's true that Czanne's Bouilloire et Fruits fetched a high price, the competition among the three telephone bidders was "measured". For now, the "market for Impressionist and modern art isn't the place to make a quick buck".

The world's deadliest laptop

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Is it art or just a PR stunt? Either way, "the most dangerous laptop in the world", according to Forbes, was sitting in a room somewhere in New York last week. Deep Instinct, a cybersecurity firm, had commissioned artist Guo O Dong to infect a 2008 Samsung notebook with six of the most dangerous computer viruses. Taken together, they have caused $95bn in financial damage, according to the special auction website that had been created for it. The artwork is called The Persistence of Chaos. "These pieces of software seem so abstract, almost fake with their funny, spooky names, but I think they emphasize that the web and IRL in real life are not different spaces", the artist told Vice. "Malware is one of the most tangible ways that the internet can jump out of your monitor and bite you."

The computer had been "air-gapped" by software engineers, meaning it had been isolated from other computers, and once it had been sold, its ports were to be deactivated so that it wouldn't be able to spread the viruses. The buyer also had to agree to the terms of the sale, stating that the laptop was only being bought as a piece of art, or for "academic reasons". A "representative" for the $10,000 project agreed with Artnet News that it could still be "weaponised", but the terms of the sale met the requirements under US law. It sold for $1.3m on Monday, with the money going to the artist.

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Auctions

Going

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A Porsche Type 64 from 1939 is heading for auction at SM Sotheby's in California in mid-August. An ancestor of the 911, the Type 64 (pictured), is the earliest-known surviving Porsche, built to compete in a Berlin to Rome road race in September of that year that never happened due to World War II. After the war, the founder Ferdinand Porsche's design for the car was modified to become the Volkswagen Beetle. The Type 64 for sale was owned by the Porsche family, while a second Type 64 was confiscated by the Allies and crashed. It is expected to fetch upwards of $20m, surpassing the $14m paid for the 1970 Porsche 917 race car used in the 1971 film Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen.

Gone

A 1959 Lotus Elite, first owned by Richard "Dickie" Stoop, a Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot, sold for £56,000 at Buckinghamshire-based Historics Auctioneers on 18 May. Stoop entered the car into the Le Mans race 11 days after buying it, but the car never made it to the starting line owing to a collision after a practice session. Stoop entered Le Mans ten times in his racing career. In 1966, he sold the Lotus to Porsche racing driver Patrick Guy Godfrey. It has had a string of owners since then. The last owner before it was sold had stripped it right down in order to carry out a full restoration, but died before it could be completed. The Lotus was therefore offered for sale in parts.

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