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The Art of Finance

PRINCETON – In the middle of September’s financial meltdown, a remarkable 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.

Financial bubbles, like the one that has just definitively burst, 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.

From their viewpoint, collecting art was not simply a matter of benevolence or public spiritedness. Nor was it simply a very expensive hobby. Their galleries showed in a visible and very public way the discernment and judgment that their financial business depended on.