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Sotheby's And The Sheikh: Oil And Starving Artists

Rising oil prices in the last few years has meant smoldering resentment among users of ordinary fuel: to keep cars on the road, to heat houses, to power this, that and the other thing. But to the oil barons and to the real oil monarch it has been a tremendous boon. (No, this has not translated into higher living standards of the Arab fellah and certainly not of the fourth generation of Palestinian "refugees.") 

Of course, the oil rich do get richer, much richer, and there is a concentric circle of beneficiaries who get paid for their wares in sums they never imagined. Among these are the artists of the latest fashions, their dealers and the auction houses.  The Art Newspaper has been keeping track of rising prices in the markets, with a particular focus on Middle Eastern collectors, while not ignoring the new zillionaires of the former Soviet Union and what is still politically very much Communist China. 

The May issue of the paper has a front page article on the acquisition at Sotheby's by the Emir of Qatar and his wife, the sheikh and a sheikha each with five names after their titles, acquired what the headline calls "the most expensive (Damien) Hirst" ever for $20 million. That seems to me not to be true. Wasn't there a diamond encrusted skull by Hirst that was sold for $100 million...or maybe it was 100 million pounds?  In any case, the sheikh and sheikha laid about twenty million bucks for what the report describes  as a sculpture

The Qatari royals may be socially and politically conservative but they sure spend money on what is "cutting edge" art and what was once -- and not so long ago -- also was thought of as "cutting edge" art. That is, they paid $73 million also at Sotheby's for what is called the "Rockefeller Rothko," "White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)," consigned by David Rockefeller. 

There is in the same issue of The Art Newspaper an article reporting that the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim will have a "potentially unlimited" budget. There the question is: will it have visitors?

And speaking of art prices, there are two articles in this morning's Wall Street Journal that are sociologically fascinating. One is a general story about sky-rocketing values in both modern and contemporary art.  The other, rather shocking, is in the upward price climb of Andy Warhol's portraits of Mao. Christie's has a large portrait of the Chairman on private sale in Hong Kong for $120 million. Of course, there are dozens of these around at all levels of price and many different mediums. But why would an extremely wealthy person living under communism want a picture of the tyrant in his house? Or is this something ironic?