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State of the Art

Soup's on!

October 01, 2005

WHAT CAN YOU DO WHEN wealthy art collectors are knocking at your door but you're fresh out of Old Masters, and even a top-notch Picasso is just too hard to find?

The answer: Let them buy soup cans.

Christie's and Sotheby's, the venerable London auction houses, are finding it easy to rebound from their price-fixing scandal of several years ago now that people are paying big money for contemporary art. According to the Financial Times, the sharp-edged works of such recent luminaries as Andy Warhol -- he of the repeated images of Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe -- last year outsold the works of Renoir, Monet and their ilk. Last November, Christie's sold Warhol's disturbing civil-rights painting, "Mustard Race Riot," for $15.1 million.

If art imitates life, or even the other way around, this trend makes a certain amount of sense. Baby boomers have always been acquisitive and self-obsessed, so it was only a matter of time before they turned to collecting their own generation's art. And these are times of violence, upheaval, disaster and insecurity. The work world is driven, the confusion palpable and the change constant -- a sense reflected in the jangled works of the tragically fated artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, another collectors' favorite.

Or maybe it is about the money. Fueled in large part by contemporary artists, the price of fine art has risen 13% in the past year. Southern California housing prices are expected to cool to a mere 10% increase in the next year.

But then, contemporary-art prices can be as volatile as their themes. Maybe the problem is that, unlike Old Masters (or California real estate), they're always making more of it. In any case, prices also boomed in the 1990s -- and then fell by 70%. No Venice bungalow ever took that kind of hit.

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