Even in tough times, contemporary art sells

Morley Safer is back on the art beat, and although he doesn't like much of what he sees at Miami's Art Basel, there's no denying that sales are strong.

(CBS News )Even if contemporary art seems alien or odd to you, consider this: the market for this art has outperformed the Standard & Poor's list of 500 common stocks since 2003. Morley Safer is back on the art beat, attending the most important contemporary art fair in the world: Art Basel Miami Beach. It's a matter of taste whether the paintings, sculpture, and what-nots are good art, but as a good investment, art is indisputably hotter than ever. In fact, elite art buyers - many from Russia and China -- are so ravenous that the contemporary art market raked in over $5 billion in auction sales last year.


The following script is from "Art Market" which aired on April 1, 2012. Morley Safer is the correspondent. Ruth Streeter, producer.

Almost 20 years ago we broadcast one of the most controversial stories in our 44 years on the air. It was called "Yes...But is it art?" I was accused of being a philistine, someone lacking the aesthetic sensibility to appreciate the challenging nature of some contemporary art -- art like Jeff Koons' floating basketballs or another artist's dripping faucet.

In those 20 years, works that I questioned, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are now worth hundreds of millions. In fact, contemporary art has become a global commodity, just like oil or soy beans or pork bellies and there seems to be no shortage of people wanting to speculate in it and no shortage of billionaires willing to invest in it -- as a haven for their cash, or love of art, or as a status symbol. And to feed those beasts there are now art fairs, virtually every weekend round the globe. And in contemporary art, none are more important, than the one we went to in December.

To Miami Beach, once a mere escape from the winter blues, now one of the great contemporary art capitals of the world. The region hosts at least 30 art fairs annually, the most important of which is Art Basel. In Miami, the executive jets arrive by the swarm, more even than flit in for the Super Bowl.

Fifty thousand people turn up, dressed up and dressed down. You can't tell the billionaires from the wannabes, the gawkers, from the gawked-at, the exhibitionists from the exhibitions.

They come to celebrate the bonanza that contemporary art has become. The art market sizzles, while the stock market fizzles. This is where big disposable income comes to be disposed.

[Fair guide: They're going to invite us to head inside to say hello.]

Inside you will find an upscale flea market, a shopping mall where prices start at the thousands and end in the stratosphere.

There is very little sense of an aesthetic experience here, not the silence or even the suppressed hush of a gallery or museum. What you hear, or imagine you hear is the cacophony of cash.

[Dealer: This is $750,000...]

This fair seems to be about art as stuff, or stuff as art -- just so much merchandise, without a price tag in sight. There are some timeless gems, maintaining a quiet elegance, but they're shouted off the walls by the kitsch, the cute, the clumsy and the incomprehensible -- from oversized headwear, to art as performance, and of course video art, an artist in the agonizing throes of creation. And then there's the question you've been dying to ask: how much is this stuff worth? Rather how much does it cost?

Dennis Scholl: There's a price for you, and there's a price for me, and there's a price for somebody else.

Dennis Scholl and his wife Debra are longtime collectors, familiar with the unwritten rules of the art bazaar.

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