Billionaires Wheel and Deal ... in Works of Art

Cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder recently bought one for $135 million. Casino king Steve Wynn nearly sold his for $139 million. And movie and music mogul David Geffen's fetched $140 million.

For the price of a small company, these masters of the corporate universe are buying and selling … paintings.

The megarich have always been collectors of art, but in recent years, a new generation of wealth has been fueling a red-hot art market.

"Some of these people have four homes," said Terri Dodd, editor in chief of American Art Collector Magazine. "And what do you need? You need art."

On Wednesday night, at Christie's, works by Gustav Klimt, Paul Gauguin, Egon Schiele, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and others sold for nearly half a billion dollars to anonymous buyers. It was billed as the biggest art auction in history and exceeded the hype.

"It was certainly the most amazing sale I've ever taken," said Christopher Burge, Christie's honorary chairman and the evening's auctioneer.

The blockbuster auction came on the heels of other recent headline-grabbing art sales.

Last month, Geffen sold three paintings for a whopping $283.5 million, including a Jackson Pollock piece that fetched the aforementioned $140 million, the highest price ever paid for a work of art. The buyers were billionaire hedge-fund managers.

Before that, Wynn finalized a $139 million sale of Pablo Picasso's "Le Reve" when he accidentally poked a hole in it while showing it off to friends in Las Vegas. Wynn reportedly released the unnamed buyer from the deal and now is keeping the work for himself.

If Wynn had sold the painting, the sale would have broken the record set by Lauder's deal.

Despite warnings two years ago from financial analysts predicting a downturn in the art market, the boom shows no sign of going bust.

Works by Picasso and others have almost doubled in price since 2003, according to Art Market Research, a leading provider of art indexes. The value of 20th century pieces, from artists such as Andy Warhol, Pollock and Willem de Kooning, have been skyrocketing as well.

"Every kind of art is appreciating in value," Dodd said. "The everyday paintings that used to be worth $20,000 are now selling for $40,000."

As a result, Christie's worldwide sales increased 33 percent between 2004 and 2005 to $3.2 billion.

Rival Sotheby's posted $2.75 billion in sales last year, up from $1.6 billion in 2003. Earlier this year, a Sotheby's auction brought in a total of $238 million for impressionist and modern works, its highest total in 16 years.

Even smaller auction houses, such as Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries, have been seeing significant gains. Art sales at Heritage, which primarily deals in collectibles, have doubled since it began auctioning art two years ago.

"There's a lot of money chasing the finer things out there," said Heritage founder Steve Ivy. "There's a lot of wealth out there, a lot of cash."

During the 1980s, a flood of Japanese collectors entered the art market. Today, priceless works of art are increasingly ending up in the living rooms and boardrooms of Russian, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern collectors, in addition to the megarich Wall Street investment bankers, Silicon Valley billionaires and European financiers.

Hoping to tap a wellspring of new buyers, Christie's opened an office earlier this year in the United Arab Emirates' city of Dubai, the first international auction house to break ground in the region.

"For the first time, it's become a truly global marketplace," said Robert Manley, senior vice president at Christie's, who credits the Internet with fueling worldwide interest.

"Before, if you really wanted to learn about art, you had to go to the art capitals or buy an art book," Manley said. "Now, you have access to any artist on the planet, and where they're shown, and images and their lives."

Web auctions have helped Heritage sell millions of dollars' worth of art to buyers from more than 100 countries.

"There's demand coming from pretty much every nook and cranny," Ivy said.

Still, some wonder whether there's a bubble, and whether it's about to burst.

"This is beginning to become a kind of art market rat race to the top of The New York Times headlines page," said Whitney May, associate editor at NY Arts Magazine. "But is there any roof to this ceiling?"

For now, the bidding continues.