With record Sotheby's sale, art market keeps booming

Collectors dropped a historic $362 million at Sotheby's evening contemporary art auction this week - a sign that for dealers and gallery owners, good times are still rolling.

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- The sky may be falling on the economy, but the art market is flying high.

Sotheby's spring contemporary art auction on Wednesday evening was the most lucrative auction in the company's history, blowing past the high end of Sotheby's estimate with sales totaling $362 million, including a record $86.3 million for a 1976 Francis Bacon triptych that had been expected to sell for about $16 million less.

Such extravagant consumption is an optimistic sign for art dealers.

"The secondary art reaffirms how the art market is doing overall," said Aldo Castillo, 51, a Chicago art dealer. Sotheby's results show that art has kept its value even as times are bad, he said, with buyers likely seeing it as a better investment as the real estate and stock market suffer losses.

New York dealers - closer to the epicenter of the Wall Street meltdown - were encouraged by the record prices but struck a more cautious tone.

The good sales news is a positive turn after the collapse of investment bank Bear Stearns, which depressed some collectors' enthusiasm, says James Cohan, a New York City gallery owner.

"I would hope that it would give the modest collector confidence in the market," Cohan, 48, said.

"[The prices] seem stratospheric," Cohan said. "We're playing in numbers that are telephone numbers, and so it's sort of stops being part of our reality." Cohan, who has a diversified base of buyers that include institutions and European and Asian collectors, says he remains "cautiously optimistic" about how he'll do this year.

Josee Bienvenu, 36, of Josee Bienvenu Gallery in New York City said that the art market has grown bigger and more diverse, making it less vulnerable to the kind of crash witnessed in the late 80's and early 90's. Still, she believes that after a year of frenzied buying the market will quiet down a bit.

"People are going to be a bit more discerning," she said.

Some art sellers simply don't understand the commotion. Seattle art dealer Greg Kucera said the New York auctions only highlight that business continues as usual. Kucera, 52, said the fascination with an impending art market crash comes from the media.

"I keep being surprised that everybody thinks this is still a big story that art is doing well," Kucera said. "I just have the sense that it's kind of the news media's attempt to predict what's going to happen, rather than report it." To top of page

Have you say on record art sales in our discussion forum.

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