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Q. Can art really get any more expensive? A. 'We will see a billion dollar work'

By William Lee Adams, for CNN
updated 5:28 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
Many of the most expensive pieces of art have been sold behind closed doors -- making precise figures hard to come by -- but even the lowest estimates are eye-watering. <i>The Card Players</i>, painted by Paul Cézanne in 1892/3, was reportedly sold to the State of Qatar in April 2011 for between $250 - $300 million. Many of the most expensive pieces of art have been sold behind closed doors -- making precise figures hard to come by -- but even the lowest estimates are eye-watering. The Card Players, painted by Paul Cézanne in 1892/3, was reportedly sold to the State of Qatar in April 2011 for between $250 - $300 million.
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The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
The most expensive pieces of art ever sold
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Insiders believe that we will see a billion-dollar piece of art in our lifetime
  • Last year Christie's sold more than $7 billion of fine art, breaking its all-time record
  • Global sales of fine art reached $65.5 billion in 2013

(CNN) -- When Christie's launches the latest auction at its New York showroom this evening, gavels will fall. Prices, however, will almost certainly rise ... and rise.

For its Post-war Masters and Contemporary Evening Sale, one of this year's headline art auctions, Christie's has on offer masterpieces including Francis Bacon's Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards, Gerhard Richter's Abstraktes Bild (712), and Mark Rothko's Untitled during a night expected to fetch well north of $200 million.

Christie's estimates that the Richter work will command a price of between $22 and $28 million, the Rothko between $40 and $60 million, and the Bacon triptych around $80 million.

The house has reason to be upbeat with its estimates.

On May 12, during an auction titled "If I Live I'll See You Tuesday," buyers from 26 countries splashed out on contemporary works by artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Richard Prince.

Christie's sold $134.6 million of art in an hour.

Speaking to journalists after the show, Christie's Chief Executive Officer Steven Murphy suggested that buyers from emerging markets are helping keep the market vibrant.

"The number of people around the world interested in acquiring art at all levels is exploding," he said. "We are not in a bubble."

Viola Raikhel-Bolot, the director of global art advisory firm 1858 Ltd Art Advisory, believes international buyers will turn out en masse for tonight's auction.

"The place to buy post-war and contemporary art seems to remain New York," she says. "Collectors from Latin America and Asia frequent the galleries here and follow these sales very closely."

Read "The dark side of creativity: Depression + anxiety x madness = genius?"

Boom times

In recent years sales of fine art have trended in one direction: up.

According to the annual report of the European Fine Art Fair, global sales of fine art and antiques jumped 7.5% in 2013 to $65.5 billion, just under the all-time high set in 2007. This includes auction sales and estimates of anonymous sales.

In 2013, Christie's tallied more than $7 billion in sales, breaking its own record for the fourth consecutive year. In November 2013, a Christie's auction in New York brought in $782,368,375, the highest auction series in art market history.

Jeff Koons's Balloon Dog sold for $58.4 million, making it the most valuable work sold at auction by a living artist and at the same auction, Francis Bacon's triptych of Lucian Feud, sold for $142 million.

Painted in 1984, this Francis Bacon triptych "Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards" is one of the most anticipated pieces up for auction at Christie's on May 13
Courtesy CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2014

Andrew Renton, director of London's Marlborough Contemporary gallery and a professor of curating at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, points out that there are many more deals going on in private, and that some likely outstrip existing records.

"We've got an economic model which is slightly contradictory," Renton says. "Prices seem to set the value. Overpaying is almost the best thing you can do, because you start to define your own market."

But this isn't a free-for-all.

He believes buyers with deep pockets want superlative works that delve into our psyche.

"Bacon works on that model," he says. "He gets into the soul of the anxious human being. And in Rothko the abstraction is a reflection of the darkness and the contemporary condition.

"People talk about these things in monetary terms. You don't get to that monetary value unless there is a correlation with cultural value."

As classic works become more scarce, their value will continue to rise -- as will the hoopla surrounding them.

"I do not believe there is a price ceiling," Renton says. "In our lifetime we will see a billion dollar work of art."

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