Crisis? What crisis? asks cash-rich art world

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NEW YORK: In a world sweating over financial turmoil, high-end art collectors say they are keeping their cool – and still spinning profits.

As stock markets crashed Tuesday from Wall Street to Moscow, the loudest sound in Christie s auction room in New York was the murmur of rich people cutting deals.

I ll take 920, 940. Why not 950? 960 if you like, encouraged auctioneer Hugo Weihe, selling a contemporary oil painting of kitchenware by Indian artist Subodh Gupta. 970? Any more? Small steps…

The hammer came down at 970 – that is $970,000, or well over a $1 million (?700,000) with commission.

Within two hours, the South Asian modern and contemporary art auction grossed $12.6 million, including $28,000 for a pencil drawing by Francis Souza that had been forecast to sell at $3,000.

This was not a hyper auction of the kind seen earlier Tuesday in London, where British shock artist Damien Hirst sold a record £111 million ($198 million dollars) at Sotheby s.

The Beautiful Inside My Head Forever auction, featuring a shark and other large animals suspended in formaldehyde, smashed the $20 million record previously held by Pablo Picasso for a sale dedicated to one artist.

But, like the extravagant splurge at Sotheby s, the steady flow of business at Christie s demonstrated the extent to which the art world feels sheltered from the panic and rage in the financial sector.

As Weihe s reassuring, even seductive voice reeled off numbers, collectors made discreet signals to register bids. Flanking them, two lines of female assistants whispered over telephones to unseen clients.

The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the threat of collapse at AIG insurance, and runs on stock markets around the world – none of this seemed to intrude.

It s true that we are totally out of synch with what s happening, but art is all about confidence and now it s quite high, said Conor Macklin, a dealer visiting New York from London s Grosvenor Gallery.

Partly that s because of the headlines. A lot of people today at the auction were talking about the Damien Hirst sale.

Max Rutherston, a dealer with the London-based Sydney L. Moss gallery, said the art market is cushioned by the presence of the seriously wealthy.

The really high end is driven by people who ve made a lot of money elsewhere. It s sort of high-end gambling and if you get it right, you can make a big profit – particularly with contemporary work, Rutherston said.

He said the art market would inevitably suffer from a worldwide economic slowdown.

But this tends to come two or three years after it happens in other markets. That s the way it s always been. Whether this is because people are in denial, or being clever, I ve never worked out, Rutherston said.

One private collector, Eegje Schoo, from Holland, said she expected the art market to thrive in troubled times.

I think this is about a group of people who have decided it s safer than other investments. We think it s going to keep growing.

In the auction room, proceedings were winding up.

A man sipping tea in the back row had just bought a cast aluminum box, exactly resembling a silvery cardboard box, for $160,000. A painting celebrating India s impoverished migrant workers had sold a little shy of $1 million.

Of the 126 lots on offer, 84 had found buyers.

As Weihe said in the lobby afterwards: There s always a class of collectors immune to these economic changes. They re in a different class. -AFP

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