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Art market on fire

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KAI RYSSDAL: Those airplane contracts Dan was telling us about can be tricky. They’ve got incentive clauses and waived fees. All kinds of smoke and mirrors. Fine art auctions, though, are at least a little more transparent. The auctioneer says going, going, gone . . . and the hammer price plus a commision is what you pay.

This is a key week for art collectors and dealers. Sotheby’s big fall auction is tonight; Christie’s is tomorrow. Analysts have been expecting art prices to peak for years now. Hasn’t happened quite yet. But Marketplace’s Alisa Roth reports from New York this week’s take is expected to be enormous.

ALISA ROTH: The auction house galleries were buzzing this morning. Buyers, advisors and the just plain curious were taking their last looks at the paintings, which will be sold this week. David Breuer-Weil helps clients decide which works are worth buying:

DAVID BREUER-WEIL: Well, there’s a few things that will never be seen again. I mean, this group of Klimts. They’re museum pictures, really. They won’t come to the market again. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

And they’re expected to sell for once-in-a-lifetime prices, too. Christie’s is betting that at least one Klimt could earn as much as $60 million. So could an early Picasso. Gauguin is expected to get a none-too-paltry $45 million.

David Ross is former head of New York’s Whitney Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. He says there’s been talk for years about the art market topping out. Which is one reason there’s so much good stuff for sale right now.

DAVID ROSS: I think that sense seems to be shared by a lot of people who now feel that this is the time, an appropriate time, to sell.

And that’s upped the competition between Sotheby’s and Christie’s for the best works; both houses are reportedly offering higher than usual guarantees — that is, the minimum amount they promise to sellers.

Last time the art market was this hot, back in the ’80s, demand was mostly being driven by one small group of collectors in Japan.

David Norman is director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby’s. He says this time, interest is much broader.

DAVID NORMAN: There’s certainly been for the last three to four years a sort of growth in the art market that’s really fueled by a whole new generation of buyers, whether it be American hedge-fund managers or newly billionaired Russians, or people in China and other Asian countries, or India.

Which, in turn, means record profits for the auction houses. Revenue at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s is up by about 50 percent this year.

In New York, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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