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The Great Contemporary Art Bubble on BBC Four

Ben Lewis (image: BLTV)

The last five years have seen an unprecedented craze for contemporary art. Contemporary art prices rose by an average of 800%, while works by Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Mark Rothko sold for record-breaking prices of £30million plus.

Art critic and film-maker Ben Lewis spent 2008 following the contemporary art market; travelling to art fairs, auctions, museums and the offices and homes of billionaire art collectors, for a new BBC Four documentary, The Great Contemporary Art Bubble.

He spoke to dealers, auctioneers, gallery owners, art market analysts and art collectors trying to find out the reasons behind the greatest rise in the value of art in history.

He says: "I didn't like what was happening in the contemporary art market... Much of the art was mass produced, repetitive and commercial. Collectors bought it for investment and stored vast amounts of it in warehouses... And the special privileges our society gave to art and artists were being exploited by some of the world's richest people to make yet more money."

Everywhere Ben went he was told the contemporary art boom would go on forever, fuelled by a new passion for art from the world's super-rich. But he found other reasons for the boom – unusual market practices, speculation, secrecy and tax breaks involving the whole art world.

It all climaxed on 15 September 2008 when Damien Hirst sold more than £70million of his art in one day. On that same day Wall Street bank Lehman Brothers collapse triggered turmoil in global financial markets. One month later the art market crashed dropping by 40% in November 2008 and 75% by February 2009. It is still falling today.

Ben says: "The contemporary art market had a speculative dynamic of its own – that's why it kept on going while other markets crashed. Great works of art are still being made today... but the Great Contemporary Art Bubble will surely go down in history as the epitome of the vanity and folly of our age."

The Great Contemporary Art Bubble, BBC Four, Monday 18 May 2009, 9.00pm


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