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How Contemporary Art Became a Fiat Currency for the World’s Richest

Boom by Michael Shnayerson traces the history of an art market out of control.

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Illustration: Stephen Cheetham

In the mid-1980s, Jean-Michel Basquiat was earning $1.4 million a year making art. Dealers in the U.S. and Europe were wiring the onetime graffiti artist $40,000 in lump sums. But “the more money Basquiat made, the more paranoid and deeply involved with drugs he became,” writes Michael Shnayerson in his new book, Boom: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art. Basquiat died of a heroin overdose in 1988, at the age of 27. Then his prices really took off— his auction record, set in 2017, is $110.5 million for a 1982 painting of a skull.

In this highly readable chronicle, Shnayerson argues that contemporary art, once a thing artists made and dealers tried (unsuccessfully) to sell, has become a form of fiat currency for the very rich. He traces that shift to a man named Leo Castelli, who made his money by marrying into it. Castelli began his career in the late 1950s selling art out of his father-in-law’s Upper East Side town house.