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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 May, 2004, 13:46 GMT 14:46 UK
Who buys paintings for $104m?
By Claire Foy-Smith
BBC News Online

An early Picasso has become the most expensive painting sold at auction - but who are the art lovers who can afford to bid such astronomical sums? And what do they do with their multi-million purchases?

Pablo Picasso's Boy with a Pipe
The painting broke bidding records
There was a bidding frenzy when Picasso's 1905 work Garcon a la Pipe went under the hammer at Sotheby's in New York on Wednesday. But with private bidders calling in from outside the auction room, it's only possible to hazard a guess at the identity of the buyer who has paid $104m (58m) for the work.

A discreet Sotheby's will not even reveal the destination continent for the painting.

But Godfrey Barker, of Art and Auction magazine and Art Review, who was at the auction, has his own guess at a likely buyer - Guido Barilla, the spaghetti billionaire boss of Barilla. The pasta baron is also rumoured to own Vincent Van Gogh's Portrait of Doctor Gachet, which had previously broken bidding records when bought for $82.5m (46m) in 1990.

He suspects that the Picasso is bound for a bank vault in Switzerland, "the one country in the world where these things hide very well".

Buyers identities do trickle out, however, as there are only a handful of very rich people in the world who consistently spend this kind of money and get approaches from galleries to display their wares.

Unless you believe in Dr No keeping his pictures in a cave, it's going to be very hard to hide this picture
Godfrey Barker
"It's always secret if only because the world's very richest people are hiding from two kinds of character - thieves and burglars, and they are also hiding from the taxman."

But he adds: "Unless you believe in Dr No keeping his pictures in a cave under water off Bangkok, it's going to be very hard to hide this picture."

The secret nature of the industry goes hand in hand with the nature of art itself, he says. "It's gazing in complete silence at your picture on the wall. It's like having your own Sistine Madonna that you can gaze at all the time."

Movers and shakers

These super-rich investors are people who have made fortunes in industry, from food, chocolate, magazines, and, more notoriously, rock stars.

Lord Lloyd-Webber with Melvin Bragg
Andrew Lloyd-Webber is a fan of the Pre-Raphaelites
Sting and Madonna are the UK's top pop star spenders, along with Paul McCartney and Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Elton John also collects, but it's in a different league - he never spends more than 5m on a picture, says Mr Barker.

"He's a man who buys in volume rather than goes for the top-of-the-mountain pinnacle stuff."

Whether the world's rich buy in order to display a much-loved purchase at home, or for tax purposes is open to question.

"I think we have seen both types of people at the very top of the art market. But most of the people have been rich and genuinely passionate," says Mr Barker.

"At this level you can't be blind to the fact that art is an investment - all pictures can go down as well as up."

Swiss fate

When Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond set a new world record in 1987 by buying Vincent Van Gogh's Irises for 27m, it's reported he had a copy made for the wall, and the original went in the vault.

Destination-wise, much of the world's privately-held art ends up in the cash-rich US, or in Switzerland, where taxes and death duties are lower - a prime consideration for the super-rich.

"Switzerland, broadly speaking, is the best place in the world to drop dead by a very long distance," says Mr Barker. And for the eagle-eyed seeking old masters, the bank vaults in that country's Zug region, where inheritance tax is zero, would be a very good place to start looking.

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