Once upon a time a couple of million dollars could buy you a darn good painting. When Norton Simon in 1965 paid $2.2 million to acquire Rembrandt's unfinished portrait of his son Titus, it made headline news around the world. The most money paid for a work of art ever. It even landed him on the cover of Time Magazine. Today, spending this amount of money at an art auction would not even earn you a mention in the inside pages of a newspaper.
In 1967, the National Gallery of Art in Washington acquired the portrait of Ginevra de' Benci, the only remaining painting by Leonardo da Vinci held privately. Trustees of the National Gallery were willing to pay $5 million, a staggering amount of money by the standards of the day, to bring a painting by Leonardo into the United States for the first time. Almost forty years later, it still remains his only painting in the United States.
It took three more years, when in 1970 Leonardo was knocked off the top spot by a sublime painting by Velasquez, a portrait of Juan de Pareja, which was acquired by the Metropolitan museum for $5.5 million.
And then came the eighties, when the Japanese - flash with money - were ready to shell out $40 million for Van Gogh's Sunflowers, and thus the race began. For the next twenty years Van Gogh and Picasso were the heavyweights of the price war. A week ago, the Spaniard won an ultimate battle, when his 1905 painting, "Boy with a Pipe" was bought by an anonymous bidder for slightly over $100 million, thus breaking a psychological barrier, unimaginable only a few years ago. Poor billionaires: the things they have to go through these days to get a decent Picasso.
And while we are on the subject of the battle of big names and personalities - the ongoing competition between two of today's most famous architects, super-cool Rem Koolhaas and our homeboy Frank Gehry, continues. Last week brought a rare victory to Rem Koolhaas, whose latest project - the Central Library in Seattle - received a rave review from the New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp. In the same article the critic refers to another Seattle landmark, Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project, as "something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died." Ouch. Not a good week for Frank Gehry, considering that the same week L.A. Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff gave a thumbs down to his Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, describing it as coming "dangerously close to the visual chaos of Universal City Walk a kind of mall for the mind."
And let's finish where we started, with the world of big money. A cover story in Sunday's New York Times style section describes with wonder and a bit of sarcasm, the collecting habits of LA billionaires and mere millionaires, who live in huge houses of up to 20,000 square-feet and spend a bloody fortune to fill their mansions with priceless art collections. Eat your heart out New York!