The Art of Capital Flight

CAMBRIDGE – What impact will China’s slowdown have on the red-hot contemporary art market? That might not seem like an obvious question, until one considers that, for emerging-market investors, art has become a critical tool for facilitating capital flight and hiding wealth. These investors have become a major factor in the art market’s spectacular price bubble of the last several years. So, with emerging market economies from Russia to Brazil mired in recession, will the bubble burst?

Just five months ago, Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, told an audience in Singapore that contemporary art has become one of the two most important stores of wealth internationally, along with apartments in major cities such as New York, London, and Vancouver. Forget gold as an inflation hedge; buy paintings.

What made Fink’s elevation of art to investment-grade status so surprising is that no one of his stature had been brave enough to say it before. I am certainly not celebrating the trend. I tend to agree with the philosopher Peter Singer that the obscene sums being spent on premier pieces of modern art are disquieting.

We can all agree that these sums are staggering. In May, Pablo Picasso’s “Women of Algiers” sold for $179 million at a Christie’s auction in New York, up from $32 million in 1997. Okay, it’s a Picasso. Yet it is not even the highest sale price paid this year. A Swiss collector reportedly paid close to $300 million in a private sale for Paul Gauguin’s 1892 “When Will You Marry?”