The Decade in Review

Say what you will, purists: the story of the aughts was the art market. When it wasn't all we could talk about, we were talking about why it was all we could talk about. After the Russian and Asian markets took a dive in the late '90s and tech stocks plummeted, and in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York, the art market sagged a bit, breaking the stride it had slipped into in the mid-'90s, when it began to recover from the last recession. But that was a short dip, and by 2003 it was moving into uncharted territory. Soon we were looking at tens of millions of dollars for works of contemporary art; new buyers from Russia, Asia, and Latin America; and the rise of our robber barons, the vaunted "hedge fund guys." In 2008, the crash of the global economy brought the art market back to earth, but that was quite a run. Here's a quick rundown of some of the decade's highlights.

Jeff Koons is the comeback kid (2000s)

A poster child for the gogo 1980s, when he began showing his work in New York’s East Village, Koons was less visible during the '90s recession, when low-production-value art stole the spotlight. But with the gargantuan topiary sculpture Puppy, first produced in 1992 and recently declared by New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz to be THE artwork of the 2000s, Koons popped back into the limelight, and has remained there, for the omnipresence of his work, and the million-dollar prices for which it’s been traded.

Tate Modern opens (2000)

The turn of the century didn’t just bring London the Millenium bridge. Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron transformed a former power plant on the Thames into the city’s iconic museum for modern and contemporary art, Tate Modern, and, in a sign of the attendance figures new art could rack up, by 2006 the visitor count was up to 2 million a year.

Christie's and Sotheby's collusion/price fixing scandal (2000)

It was the art-market story of the decade – it could turn out to be one of the most explosive of the century – and it broke just as the 2000s began: Christie’s and Sotheby’s had been illegally cooperating to fix prices by setting matching fees. The details of the shenanigans were revealed in the ensuing months, and legal proceedings culminated in a prison sentence for Sotheby’s chairman A. Alfred Taubman.

France allows foreign art auction houses to conduct sales (2001)

The opening up of the French auction world to foreign competition was a major leap forward for the European art market. Parisian sales had been monopolized for centuries by Drouot, but the big two houses started conducting sales there in 2001 (Sotheby’s in November, Christie’s the following month). This has arguably been one factor in Paris’s recent art-market rise; consider that the stunning Yves Saint Laurent sale, conducted by Christie’s last February, might otherwise not have taken place.

Art Basel Miami Beach launches, becomes the most important modern and contemporary art fair in U.S., changes everything (2002)

Many an art dealer will remember when, in the 1990s, the dominant fair in the United States was Art Chicago. All that changed when Art Basel landed on U.S. shores. Delayed a year by the events of September 11, it hit the ground running in 2002, and effected a major shift in the art market’s calendar, throwing an international spotlight on a burgeoning art scene in Miami, and extending the market action well beyond the November auctions in New York.

Hirst buys his work back from Saatchi for $14 million (2003)

The 2000s saw the rise of big art: big art dealers, big art fairs, big auctions, big artworks. They also saw the ascendance of the big artist — the businessman-artist — in the form of Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons, and, of course, Damien Hirst. Hirst made one of his boldest moves in controlling his own work when he bought back, through his gallery, White Cube, a cache of his pieces – 12 in all, in a deal rumored to have gone into tens of millions of dollars – from British collector and market maker Charles Saatchi.

Picasso sells for $104 million (2004)

The international press, dealers, and all-around gawkers packed Sotheby’s saleroom in New York one evening in May 2004, breathless with anticipation, as rumor had spread that Picasso’s 1905 painting Boy with a Pipe would likely top the $100 million mark. Sure enough, when the premium was added in, it reached $104 million, and instantly became emblematic of an art market that had soared to stratospheric heights.

New MoMA opens (2004)

Since it was founded in 1929 under director Alfred Barr, New York’s Museum of Modern Art has become synonymous with, well, modern art, and so Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi, charged with creating a whole new building for the museum, had the weight of the art world on his shoulders when the structure opened in November 2004. Lines stretched around the block for the opening, and though there was the expected griping from those nostalgic for MoMA’s old digs, a new era had unquestionably begun.

Trend: BIG museums (expansions everywhere)

The question of the past decade wasn’t which museums expanded but which didn’t. Across the U.S., from New York to Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles, as well as internationally, massive new museum buildings popped up, with starchitects like Renzo Piano, Herzog & de Meuron, and Santiago Calatrava behind their eye-catching designs.

Momart Fire (much YBA art lost) (2004)

Britart blazed a trail through the international art world in the 1990s; in 2004, a blaze claimed some of the most important works to come out of that movement when, in May, the storage warehouse in London belonging to Momart, a company devoted to the storage, installation, and transportation of artworks, went up in flames. Charles Saatchi was among the collectors storing works there. Notable among the losses were Jake and Dinos Chapmans elaborate piece Hell and Tracey Emins iconic Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. In a way the Chapmans got the last laugh: Momart approached them to design a corporate Christmas gift later that year, and they produced a lighter.

Sheikh Saud Al Thani's downfall and arrest (2005)

One minute, acting as president for Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (NCCAH), he was on a shopping spree for masterpieces such as the Jenkins Venus, a second-century AD Roman statue he bought at Christie’s London for £7.9 million; the next he was under house arrest for misusing public funds.

Trend: The rise of museums run by collectors

Mitchell Rales in Maryland; Vicki and Kent Logan in Colorado; the Rubells, Ella Cisneros, Rosa de la Cruz and Marty Margulies in Miami; Francois Pinault in Venice (when he couldn’t get a site near Paris); and the list goes on… In the 2000s, private museums became a must-have for many ambitious collectors. Now many of these endeavors, with their impressive holdings and ambitious exhibitions, may even represent competition for museums on the more traditional model.

Getty antiquities curator is Marion True indicted by the Italian government, along with American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr., for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities (2005)

For centuries, explorers, scholars, and museums drew liberally from the deep cultural wealth of early Western societies — but in the new millennium, those societies struck back. The arrest of Hecht and True in 2005 for conspiracy to traffic in illicit antiquities marked the culmination of years of investigations and the beginning of a new era of treasure hunting that would also have Greece and Egypt hotly pursuing their displaced cultural heritages.

Thomas Krens vs. Peter Lewis

During his two-decade reign as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens never skirted controversy, embarking on ambitious expansion plans (Bilbao, Las Vegas, and an unrealized New York satellite) and unusual exhibitions (Armani suits, motorcycles, and Matthew Barney) that earned him high praise from some and vicious criticism from others. In a 2005 showdown with board member Peter Lewis, who argued the museum was overreaching, Krens emerged victorious, though Lewis, the foundation’s largest donor in history, departed. Three years later, Krens announced he would step down amid speculation that the board had grown wary of his tough managerial style. He stayed on as an adviser, though, and his final, crowning achievement may be yet to come: The museum’s 320,000-square-foot Abu Dhabi branch, which Krens helped to engineer, is set to open in 2012.

Sotheby's and Christie's get in the gallery game (2006)

Sotheby’s surprised many market observers in 2006 when it snapped up the redoubtable Holland gallery Noortman Master Paintings in an $82.5 million deal at the height of the boom. Not to be outdone, Christie’s followed suit the next year, buying up the tony contemporary art purveyor Haunch of Venison. As the market has moved out of the suddenly subdued auction rooms and behind closed doors over the past year, their acquisitions are looking smarter than ever.

Klimt's restituted Adele Bloch-Bauer I sells for $135 million (2006)

Austria tried but failed to scrape together the $100 million-plus it would required to buy back five Gustav Klimt paintings taken by the Nazis, housed for decades in the Belvedere in Vienna, and restituted to Bloch-Bauer's heirs after years of legal wrangling initiated by Bloch-Bauer's then 90-year-old niece, Maria Altmann. Cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder stepped in and picked up Adele Bloch-Bauer I for $135 million, then the highest sum ever paid for a painting, eclipsing even the $100 million-plus paid for Picasso's Boy With a Pipe two years earlier.

Salander O'Reilly Falls (2007)

The alleged deception seems almost quaint now, reduced to small-potatoes status by the global-economy-shaking schemes of Bernie Madoff, but dealer Lawrence Salander's transgressions against his clients and consigners alike shook the art world in 2007. When all was told, he would be issued a hundred-count indictment accusing him of stealing $88 million from 26 victims, and both his family and his business would file for bankruptcy.

Philippe de Montebello Retires (2007)

Museum directorship suffered a bit of an identity crisis in the aughts, with institutions reevaluating who should be at their helms — art historians or businesspeople more suited to spearheading the multimillion-dollar expansions that had become de rigeur. In 2007, the Metropolitan Museum of Art faced the choice as well, when Philippe de Montebello announced his retirement after more than three decades as director. Watchers speculated for months about who might be brought in to take the smooth-voiced aristocrat's place and were surprised (though not necessarily displeased) that it ended up being scholarly tapestries expert Thomas Campbell.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Returns Euphronios Krater to Italy (2008)

Some three years after Italy indicted American dealer Robert Hecht and Getty antiquities curator Marion True, shocking scholars everywhere and kicking off an aggressive campaign to reclaim antiquities wrongfully taken from Italian soil, the Met handed over the prized Euphronios krater and several other disputed antiquities in a deal struck by Philippe de Montebello.

Trend: The rise (and rise and rise) of contemporary Chinese art

Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang — they may not have been well known before the 2000s, but they have lately become household names, at least among market watchers. Chinese contemporary art, particularly painting, saw a meteoric rise in the past 10 years, both at auction and in private sales. Lately, with the dip in the global art market, their prices have started to soften, but China, many believe, has just begun its ascent, art-wise, and so the dip may well be short-lived.

Damien Hirst auction brings in $200 million after fall of Lehman Brothers (2008)

On Sept. 15, 2008, with the (art) world reeling from the collapse of the global financial firm Lehman Brothers, announced that very morning, the British bad boy stepped up to the block at Sotheby's to sell some 200-plus artworks straight from the studio, surpassing expectations to earn an astronomical and shocking £111,576,800 ($200,953,342) — numbers unseen since.

Yves Saint Laurent's collection brings in almost $500 million at Christie's (2009)

Some five months after the Lehman collapse and its myriad aftershocks, the art market was ready for some good news. It came in the form of this three-day, six-session, 600-lot auction of artwork and objects from tastemaker Yves Saint Laurent's personal collection at Christie's Paris, which yielded an astounding €373.9 million ($483.8 million), proving that collectors would still open their wallets en masse — for the right work.