It's high times for art and collectibles

Forget stocks and bonds. The real excitement for folks with money is in the market for art and collectibles, which has been booming.

Impressionist and modern art auctions held recently at Sotheby's (BID) and Christie's have set records. Sotheby's auction earned $422.1 million in sales, the highest total in the 248-year-old auction house's history. Longtime rival Christie's sold $165.6 million worth of Impressionist and modern art during another recent auction.

Highlights of the Sotheby's sales include Alberto Giacometti's "Chariot,"which was sold for $100.96 million, the second-highest price for any sculpture at auction, and Vincent Van Gogh's "Still Life Vase With Daises and Poppies," which brought in $61.8 million, the highest price for a painting by the Dutch artist since 1998.

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An employee poses with a painting by Vincent Van Gogh entitled 'Vase with Daisies and Poppies" during a press preview at Sotheby's Oct. 10, 2014 in London.
Carl Court, Getty Images

At Christie's, the J. Paul Getty Museum agreed to buy "Le Printemps" by Edouard Manet for $65.1 million, far above the painting's pre-auction estimate of $25 million to $35 million. Works by Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Georges Braque also sold for higher-than-expected prices.

According to a statement from the auction house, demand is strong across many categories of art, although it noted that demand for contemporary art was "exceptionally strong."

"The strength of the stock market has some effect on the art market as it does every market," according to a Christie's statement provided to CBS MoneyWatch. "However, to a larger degree, the confidence we are seeing in art investment is due to the consistently strong auction results we are seeing season after season, and a growing interest in owning important objects and works of art."

The boom doesn't always translate into more profits for the auction houses. Writing in the New Yorker, Felix Salmon noted that after marketing costs and other fees, "There's a good chance that" Sotheby's lost money. A Sotheby's spokeswoman declined to respond to the article, saying its relationship with clients is confidential.

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Collectibles are also experiencing a boom. A Babe Ruth rookie baseball card sold at Heritage Auctions for $101,575, or 69 percent higher than was expected, while a pair of boxing gloves (left) Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) wore during the first bout with Sonny Liston changed hands for $836,000, or 67 percent higher than estimates. A paisley velvet vest worn by rock legend Jimi Hendrix sold for $37,500, more than 1,700 percent higher than initial estimates.

According to Joe Orlando, a authentication expert and editor of a publication that tracks values of sports memorabilia, a game-used Mickey Mantle baseball jersey could have been acquired about five years ago for $100,000 to $150,000. Several have sold in recent years for $400,000 to $700,000.

"Collectors love to take pride in owning something that few people or no one else has," Orlando said. "When you are talking about really special items, there is only so much stuff to go around. This type of material is always a good bet over the long haul."

In an interview with CBS MoneyWatch, Heritage Executive Vice President Tom Imhof said many first-time buyers are entering the market from China and other areas outside the U.S. "A lot of these people feel like they have a little more money these days," he said.

Auctioneer Wes Cowan, who has appeared for years on "Antiques Roadshow," notes that the antiques and collectibles that are fetching the strong prices are of the highest quality, while the market for more common items remains soft.

"People don't want average," he said. "They want the best."

Though high-quality art and antiques do tend to hold their value, that is not always the case. Items such as sterling silver flatware and Victorian brass candle sticks have fallen out of favor, with many people losing interest because these items need to be polished, he said.

"The great things are easy to sell because their supply is so limited," he said.

The one bright spot to the boom in the high-end of the market, noted Cowean, is that less valuable items are now more reasonably priced.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.