Art, Rare Jewel Market Thrives In Tough Economic Times: Daily Austerity Watch

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Average consumers may fret about the high price of gas and the debt crisis that has stymied members of Congress.   Rich people, though, are increasingly unencumbered by financial worries as auctions for art and rare jewels set records this week.

American painter Thomas Hart Benton’s 1951 painting  “Flood Disaster,” fetched $1.87 million at a Sotheby’s sale of American Paintings on Thursday, beating its presale estimate of $1.2 million.    The sale fetched a total of $27.1 million, with six lots earning $1 million, according to ARTFIXdaily.    A painting by the late and somewhat obscure Australian artist Ethel Spowers was recently sold by Christie’s in London recently sold for 51,650 pounds ($83,931).  Presale estimates were 3,000 pounds to 5,000 pounds.

“The work in question, Wet Afternoon, is pretty and relaxing to look at,” writes Jonathan Jones in The Guardian.  “A Japanese influence seems unmistakable in the vista of umbrellas, the slashes of rain, and the use of colour to give solidity as well as interest to the picture. But it is impossible to tie any bigger meaning to the high price paid for this work at this moment. And that is what is so interesting about it.”

Let’s venture where Jones wouldn’t go.   Rich people are clearly feeling more confident as stock markets rebound from their recession lows and corporate profits rebound.   They are opening their wallets and checkbooks.  Tiffany & Co. (NYSE: TIF) reported better-than-expected quarterly results in March.  Shares of the luxury retailer are near 52-week highs.  The company today boosted its dividend by 16%.  LVMH Moet Hennessey sA (PINK:LVMUY)  gave a bullish outlook during its quarterly earnings report.

“The Group had an excellent start to the year, continuing the trends seen at the end of 2010.” the company said. “The United States, Europe and Asia enjoyed strong momentum. After the earthquake in Japan, the Group’s local teams worked hard to effect a gradual return to normal business.”

Auctions of rare jewelry, wine and watches fetched $200 million at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Geneva, some at world record prices.   Christie’s claimed it was its most successful sale in four decades.  The auctions evidence of an “extraordinary appetite” among connoisseurs for rare pieces, the AP quotes David Bennett, chairman of Sotheby’s European and Middle Eastern jewelry sales as saying.

Clearly, conspicuous consumption is back.  States are seeing an unexpected windfall of tax revenue,  making the case for austerity tougher to make.  Some charities are seeing a windfall.  A glitzy AIDS gala at the Cannes Film Festival raised more than $10 billion on Thursday, according to Reuters.  “It was a marked change from 2010, when the hangover from the global financial crisis kept a lid on late-night revelry,”  the news service said.

Sadly, though,  President Obama can’t count on the rich to shoulder the burdens of the economic recovery by themselves.  Every bit helps.

–Jonathan Berr