Here's why the art market could soar

Key Points
  • Sotheby's CEO Tad Smith sees fine art prices rising.
  • Smith's assumption is based on the spending power of the world's billionaires.
  • The numbers counter the argument that art prices have soared beyond the reach of the wealthy.
Masterpieces by Modigliani and Picasso unveiled at Sotheby's on June 16, 2016 in London. (L-R) Modigliani's "Jeanne Hebuterne (au foulard)," 1919 and Picasso's "Femme assise," 1909 were auctioned as part of the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale.
Getty Images

Conventional wisdom holds that the art market is highly cyclical and moves with stock markets.

But recent comments from Sotheby's CEO Tad Smith suggest that fine art prices have room to grow — and may be in for a structural (rather than cyclical) surge.

Sotheby's looked at the wealth of today's billionaires and compared it to the most expensive works of art sold. To do this, Sotheby's used the 201st richest American on the Forbes 400 to get a median wealth level. In 2006, the 201st on the list would have had to spend 10 percent of their wealth to buy the most expensive piece of art sold that year. In 2016, that same number was only around 5 percent.

In 2006, the 201st wealthiest person would have had to spend 70 percent of their fortune to buy all of the top 10 pieces of art sold at auction that year. In 2016, that same number was 40 percent.

"In other words, the median member of the Forbes 400 would have seen his personal spending power to purchase art at auction grow 75 percent in the past decade alone," Smith said.

Granted, not every billionaire collects art, and even the most avid collectors aren't likely to spend 10 percent of their wealth on a painting. And billionaire fortunes aren't that liquid — most are in the form of operating businesses rather than cash that can be handed over to Sotheby's.

Yet, the numbers counter the perception that art prices have soared beyond the reach or rationale of even the wealthiest buyers.

There are not only more billionaires in the world than ever — more than 2,000 — but their fortunes have grown far more rapidly than art prices. And that could make today's most expensive art look relatively cheap in the future.