Two years ago, it looked as if the art world would never be the same again. On the very evening that Damien Hirst earned himself £111 million at a one-man auction of his gimcrack productions came the news that Lehman Brothers had collapsed. It seemed simultaneously a high- and low-water mark — a perfect storm of money and bathos that suggested everything was about to change for good. But, as with other parts of the financial sector, nothing substantial did change and the links binding money and art hold fast as never before.
Giacometti's "L'Homme Qui Marche I" sold for £65 million in February 2010
This year has been topped and tailed by finance. Within the space of three months at the beginning of the year, the world record price for a work of art sold at auction ping-ponged between Picasso and Giacometti. In February, Giacometti's sculpture L'Homme Qui Marche I sold for £65 million, usurping the previous record-holder, Picasso's Garçon à la pipe (£58.5m), before being toppled in turn in May by the Spaniard's Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust which went for £70m. This was not an aberration: the rest of the year has been spattered with both multi-million pound sales and individual artists' records (among them Matisse's sculpture Nu de dos, 4 which fetched £30.2m and a Modigliani nude, La Belle Romaine, £42.7m). The art market now stands at the level it last attained in 2006.
What is surprising about the Picasso and Giacometti, however, is not so much that the anonymous bidders were prepared to spend such vast sums but that they were prepared to spend them on these particular pieces. Part of the reason was that this was the first time in 20 years that a life-size Giacometti had appeared at auction and that the Picasso hadn't been seen in public since 1961. However, Giacometti's statue is not a unique piece but of one of six numbered casts (there are four artist's proofs, too) and the Picasso is hardly a stand-alone masterpiece.
According to some estimates, Picasso produced more than 13,500 paintings, so while many were, if not workaday, at least unexceptional, statistically he produced numerous blue-riband works, too. Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust does not seem to me to be among the greatest of them. Indeed, seeing a selection of his nudes hanging alongside examples by Titian, Goya, Ingres and Rembrandt et al at the Paris Picasso and the Masters exhibition a couple of years ago demonstrated that he was not at the top of the top tier of art history's great painters of the naked form. The commodification of Picasso has made it increasingly hard to look at him as solely an artist. His paintings have become as much financial as artistic artefacts and he is the lightning rod that proves that absolute quality is a minor consideration when the super rich come to part with their cash. Even John Richardson, the great Picasso scholar, commented on the latest record-breaker: "I can't think why anyone in their right mind would buy that rather than a half-dozen Rembrandts."