The upward spiral of the fine-arts auction index while the Dow Jones skids mostly downward may say something about our civilization, although it is not clear what. Both IBM shares and Van Gogh's "Irises" seem prized for the same reason, as investments.
We would feel a good deal better about the recent records in art auctions if it were clearer where the masterworks are headed. We can understand John Whitney Payson's temptation to seize on this inflation to increase the capital of his philanthropic enterprises. Perhaps the anonymous European purchaser has equally generous impulses, and perhaps the painting may be shared with the museums of the world as aggressively as Sotheby's shared it on a global promotional tour before the sale.
The public is largely dependent on the whims and wishes of affluent collectors and donors in gaining access to the masterpieces of mankind. The present level of auction prices is beyond the means of governments and most museums.
Fortunately, many of these collectors have acted with restraint and responsibility, as is evident in the displays we share each day in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Norton Simon, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Getty, the Huntington. In the same vein, perhaps we can trust we have not seen the last of Van Gogh's "Irises."