art market

“Toro,” a painting by Rodolfo Nieto, is displayed at Christie’s ahead of the New York auction house’s sale of Latin American art. (Timothy Clary, AFP/Getty Images / November 15, 2013)

NEW YORK — The painting once hung in the Cleveland Museum of Art. And there was no shortage of people who wanted it in the crowded Christie's auction room.

The artwork, "Women Reaching for the Moon," is a blur of a woman in a red dress. It was painted by

Rufino Tamayo, the famed Mexican creator of abstract works that combine European and Latino influ-

ences. Though bidding started at $500,000, it quickly reached $1 million. The standing-room-only crowd murmured as auctioneer Adrian Meyer parried with the remaining bidders, and workers wheeled in rows of extra chairs.

"Look at the painting, at least face it. You still have a chance," Meyer said to a woman in the audience who had been bidding, as the price went up to $1.2 million. "For $50,000, it could be yours."

When Meyer finally knocked his hammer against the lectern, signaling that the painting had sold for $1.2 million, "Women Reaching for the Moon" became the most expensive work to pass through Christie's for the evening. The auction, held two weeks ago, was part of Christie's biannual sale of Latin American art.

But it was not the most expensive to be sold at the auction house this season.

In October, Christie's sold a triptych by renowned British figurative painter Francis Bacon for $142.4 million, a record price for a painting at auction. The auction house also set a record for the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold a steel sculpture, "Balloon Dog" by American contemporary artist Jeff Koons, for $58.4 million.

Economists may still be worried about consumer spending as the holiday season approaches, but if the art market is any indication, the world's wealthiest have lots of money to spend.

As small groups of people get richer in various countries across the world, observers say, they're putting money into art both to gain status and invest in something new. Many have never put their money into art before.

"What we're seeing is that wealth is expanding in Latin America and the Middle East," said Phillip Hoffman, head of the Fine Art Fund Group, which consults with wealthy clients who want to buy art. "The new rich like to enjoy art, show it off, have it as an alternative asset."

Hoffman's company is 30 times bigger than it was three years ago, he said, as more wealthy clients become interested in owning art. He has 120 clients — most from Asia, Europe and Latin America — who have never owned art before. In fact, one of them dropped $67 million on two paintings.

About 3% of the world's wealthy now own art, but Hoffman estimates that figure will grow to 30% to 40% in the next decade.

Art as an investment really didn't come into vogue until the British Rail Pension Fund, which had begun acquiring art in the 1970s, began to divest of its artworks, said Barbara Guggenheim, of the art consultancy Guggenheim Asher Associates. The sales, which mostly occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, netted tens of millions of dollars for the fund, leading to an 11% return.

"For the very first time, Wall Street had something very concrete to look at as a model," she said. "And Wall Street loves graphs."

The global art market is now worth about $60 billion.

These days, though, it's not just art. Wary of losing wealth in the shaky stock market, the super wealthy are also putting money into alternative investments, such as classic cars, wine, gems and watches. Sotheby's sold a giant flawless pink diamond for $83 million in Geneva last month, the highest ever paid for a gemstone at auction.

But as sales of other luxuries including high-end condos boom, art can go hand in hand, said Martin Friedrichs, assistant director of the Hollis Taggart galleries on New York's Upper East Side.

"There's a boom of high-end condos here, and people need something to put on their walls," he said. "It's much nicer to hang a piece of art than a printout from your online brokerage account."

These kinds of high-end investments have been surging as the number of millionaires around the world has increased dramatically in recent years.