Harold James


On his book The Creation and Destruction of Value: The Globalization Cycle

Cover Interview of November 08, 2009

A close-up

One of the most dramatic bubbles of the 2000s occurred in the art market, above all in contemporary art.  For fine art overall, the most widely quoted index, the Mei Moses index, showed an annual rise of around 20 percent over a five year period.  Art suddenly appeared to be an excellent investment, and art fairs and auctions proliferated.

This particular bubble demonstrates very clearly the link between monetary values and other values.  Art became important at the same time as a speculative asset, and as a statement about taste.  The capacity of art possessions to make a statement about the owner’s capacity for discernment was at the heart of the appeal of art as an investment category.

In the middle of the financial meltdown of September 2008, a cultural event occurred in London.  While the City of London was shaken by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the run on HBOS, Sotheby’s staged a record-breaking auction for the works of the artist Damien Hirst, which produced a gross take of around $200 million.  Compared to the values that were being destroyed on Wall Street, this was small change; but it was a remarkable vote of confidence in the work of one artist.  He was increasingly over-extending himself as a result of the appetite of the market.  Indeed, a few days after the September sale, Hirst stated that “I don’t have enough time at the moment.  I don’t even do my own paintings.”

Why did so many buyers want to acquire the works of Hirst at such extreme prices, and why was the extremity of the reputational bubble such an additional source of attraction?  Financial bubbles, like the one that was just definitively bursting at the time of the Hirst auction, are intimately related to the world of art.  Renaissance Florence depended on the patronage of the Medici.  Sixteenth-century Venice turned the wealth of the spice trade into the canvases of Titian and Tintoretto.  The world’s next great commercial center was Amsterdam, where again the successful burghers pushed for a new style of art and produced the age of Rembrandt.  The great nineteenth- and early twentieth-century financiers, men like J.P.  Morgan, Henry Frick, and Andrew Mellon, spent a large part of their fortunes on art.

Financial judgment, by contrast, is not by its nature open to inspection.  It depends on inside deals, on moving ahead of the market.  It is impossible to tell who is making good bets and who is gambling recklessly.  It is unwise to rely solely on the charm or persuasive capacity of the financial intermediary.  Consequently, it is helpful to have a proxy activity that enables outsiders to see that the process of discernment and valuation really occurs.

Of course art is not the only way of revealing supposed financial skill: it might also be a taste in fine wines (which developed also as an asset class), or skill at card games.  Much of Wall Street was gripped by a poker mania in the 1980s, while the senior management at Bear Stearns was apparently appointed because of sustained skill at playing bridge.  Art collecting similarly reveals a capacity for precisely conducting long-term valuations.

The recent era of global finance—maybe we can already possibly speak of it as being past—differed from the financial surge of a century ago.  Its cultural manifestations also appeared to be novel.  It was playful, allusive, edgy, in short post-modern.  It treated tradition and history not as a constraint, but as a source of ironic reference.  A post-modern neglect or disdain for reality generated the sense that the whole world was constantly shifting and malleable, and might be as transient and as meaningless as stock quotations.