'Salvator Mundi' and 'Rabbit': why are some people willing to spend so much money on art?

Are the prices for art increasing or is that just an illusion?

In this undated photo provided by Christie's Images LTD, a 1972 painting entitled "Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)," by British artist David Hockney is shown. The painting, considered one of Hockney's premier works, was sold at auction by Christie's in New York for $90.3 million. (David Hockney/Courtesy of Christie's Images LTD via AP)
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It took five years for David Hockney's 1972 painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) to knock Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog (Orange) off the top spot for most expensive artwork by a living artist to sell at an auction. It sold for a whopping $90.3 million (Dh331.6m) at Christie's New York on Thursday, November 15, 2018. Only six months later, Koons pipped Hockney to the post, when his 1986 sculpture Rabbit sold for $91.1m.

These are merely the sky-rocketing prices reached at public auction. In private, hedge-fund billionaire Steven A Cohen bought Jasper Johns' 1958 painting Flag for $110m in 2010 – the highest known price paid for any artwork by a living artist. He almost spent $139m on Pablo Picasso's 1932 oil painting Le Reve (The Dream) once, too, but the owner accidentally punched a hole in it before they sealed the deal – that's a whole other story, though.

For works by deceased artists, the records are even higher, with the top spot held by Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi, which sold at Christie's for $450.3m on Wednesday, November 15, 2017. That's more than $150m over the price paid for the previous record-holder, Willem de Kooning's 1995 piece Interchange, also bought for about $150m more than Paul Cezanne's The Card Players, which topped records in 2011.

It might seem art is becoming more expensive, but that’s just an illusion. People are buying works from a small pool of artists – alive or dead – and most would do very, very well to sell one of their pieces for six or even seven figures. The majority will never achieve that.

epa07940158 A visitor looks at the painting entitled 'Salvator Mundi' by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci's workshop during an exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, 22 October 2019. The exhbition running from 24 October 2019 to 24 February 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of Da Vinci's death.  EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON
A visitor looks at the painting entitled 'Salvator Mundi' by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci's workshop during an exhibition at the Louvre Museum in Paris. EPA

The names of Picasso, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol recur over and over alongside Koons, Damien Hirst and Gerard Richter on top-sellers’ lists (incidentally, there are no women). Only 0.2 per cent of artists will ever see their work sell for more than $10m, although most money from a sale will go to the work’s previous owner and not the artist.

There has been, however, a rise in collectors, who increasingly see work by brand-name and well-marketed artists as a solid investment. Yet, as this week’s November sales at the big auction houses are estimated to bring in about 24 per cent less than last year, whether we’ve reached a tipping point in how much people are willing to spend remains to be seen.