Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger was this week sold in New York for an astonishing $179.3 million – nearly $40 million above the reserve price and a record for any work of art at auction. Whenever these new benchmarks are set, they are hailed as signalling the top of the market. There has been no shortage of such commentary this time around; all puffed up by central bank money printing and ultra-low interest rates, the world is widely said to have gone mad, with some kind of a biblical reckoning just around the corner.
But though this may or may not be true in the short term, it is almost certainly incorrect on any kind of longer term view. The fact is that the world is getting richer, all the time – and at a scarcely imaginable rate, making more and more people into multi-millionaires, and even billionaires. Those for whom money is literally no object are no longer the tiny minority of humanity they once were. They are all over the place. The same also holds true further down the feeding chain. According to estimates in the latest Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, some 4.2 per cent of British adults are now worth more than $1 million (£635,000) and a further 53.3 per cent between $100,000 and $1 million. Lifestyles that were once confined to kings are now enjoyed by millions.
Part of the effect is that worth is progressively defined not by utility, but by scarcity. When luxury is common-or-garden, the truly wealthy have to seek solace in ever more exotic and outrageous forms of exclusivity, whether it be food, drink, property, travel or art.