November 6, 2008 / 12:33 AM / 9 years ago

Air kisses, record sales in inside look at art boom

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As art prices boomed in recent years, seemingly immune to growing economic woes, author Sarah Thornton infiltrated the insular market and air-kissed her way through auctions and studios to give an insider account.

Her book “Seven Days in the Art World,” released in the United States this week, travels through the art world -- from a visit to the studio of controversial Japanese artist Takashi Murakami to Britain’s hyped Turner Prize.

“My book is a kind of time capsule of the boom,” Thornton told Reuters in a telephone interview from her home in London ahead of the book’s U.S. publication.

And given that experts are worried the boom could be ending as the global financial crisis shows signs of dampening the art world’s meteoric rise, Thornton said her book “now feels like a history of the recent past. It is very much of its moment.”

The boom of recent years saw records prices regularly smashed at auctions and was partly fueled by growing interest from super-rich buyers in Russia, the Middle East and the Far East, reflecting emerging-market oil wealth and the prestige connected with owning rare masterpieces.

But after London sales failed to live up to expectations earlier this month, experts are eyeing New York Impressionist, modern and contemporary art sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses to see how far the art market might follow the downward path of stocks, oil and property values.

“WORST SNOBS”

More than $1 billion worth of fine art is set to go under the hammer during the two weeks of sales in New York that began on Monday at Sotheby’s where, despite a $60 million sale of an abstract painting by Russian artist Kazimir Malevich, more than one-third of the 70 lots on offer went unsold.

Thornton, a one-time academic writer, spent 2-1/2 years researching her book, which is made up of seven chapters based on seven explorations, each distilled into a single, representative day.

“It’s like having your own spy in the art world. Thornton parachutes the reader into the fascinating nitty gritty of how it all works -- prizes, auctions and biennales,” wrote BBC creative director Alan Yentob.

Thornton captures the essence, appeal, complexity and the mass of contradiction that permeates the rarefied art world, and often fascinates outsiders.

As portrayed by Thornton, the real-life inhabitants of this elite realm often channel behavior better suited to the lowbrow inhabitants of reality television.

The rampant air-kissing of Switzerland’s Art Basel fair is in all likelihood masking sabotage, resentment or outright hatred of its participants for one another. Deep-rooted insecurity is masked by a preponderance of arrogant bravado.

“It’s a very conflicted world. It’s unbelievably idealist and unbelievably materialist at the same time,” Thornton said. “It’s lofty and petty, elitist and down-to-earth. Artists and collectors can be totally grounded, and then you’ll meet just the worst snobs.”

Editing by Michelle Nichols and Cynthia Osterman

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