No More Francis Bacon

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We didn’t think we could stand seeing it again. Now we don’t have to.

Christie’s auction house on Old Brompton Road, South Kensington, has had a portrait in the window for the last few weeks — Francis Bacon’s 1969 “Self Portrait.” Every time we walked to the tube station we had to pass the hideous thing — with its huge bent nose and its corrupted mug. It looked like the face of man who had shot hit own grandmother or drowned his dog.

Who would want to own such a painting? It was so depressing it would have made us want to blow our own brains out.

Apparently, it had that effect on several other people. A friend of the artist (a burglar whom he caught in his apartment and to whom he became attached) committed suicide, and Bacon himself tried to destroy most of his own paintings.

But such is the strength of the boom in London’s financial industry …such is the bubble in “assets,” and such is the soft-headedness of “art” buyers that the revolting thing was sold for more than twice the amount expected. It went for 5.2 million pounds (about $9 million).

We pity the poor sap that bought it. It is not an “asset” at all — but a wretched liability. The buyer could hang it on his living room wall, but then he and his loved ones would be forced to gaze on it day after day. Better yet, he could hide it away, and then at least he’d be performing a public service. In either case, he would have to hope that an even bigger fool would come along in a couple years to take it off his hands.

Of course, the same could be said for almost all the trash lifted up by this tide of cash: McMansions…Googles…U.S. Treasury bonds. Does anyone actually intend to own this stuff, to enjoy it, to have and hold it until death it does part? Or, is it all reckless speculation, with owners desperately hoping to sell to the next raving lunatic who comes along?

The chief economist at Fannie Mae tells us that never before have so many houses been purchased by people who did not intend to live in them. Nationwide, says David Berson, the total is about 20% of houses sold. In hot markets, such as Florida and California, about 30% of all new houses are bought by speculators.

What will the speculators do? If they keep having the wind at their backs, they will be able to sell to another speculator, but when the wind changes direction, to whom will they sell? Eventually, someone has to actually get his paws on the house and move in for real, doesn’t he? Likewise, at some point, doesn’t the “Self-Portrait” have to find someone who actually likes it, for itself, sooner or later? We ask this in a spirit of scientific curiosity, for we cannot imagine it. Instead, we suspect that the painting will end up on a museum or a law firm wall, surrounded by other equally expensive and equally hideous “art” that no one really likes, but everyone bears. And don’t Google owners eventually have to earn enough from their share-holdings so they are even with U.S. Treasury yields? Otherwise, why bother?

But for the moment, we are still enjoying draining this long Fin de Bubble to its dregs; bankruptcy and good taste will have to wait for the morning after.

Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis.

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