Social Distancing for Mega-Million Fun and Profit

For the world’s super rich, the thrills don’t come cheap. But they do keep coming — even amid a pandemic. Case in point: this past Monday night’s historic Sotheby’s art auction, the first-ever “hybrid” sale of high-end artwork. On site in London, Hong Kong, and New York, socially distanced Sotheby’s specialists took in phone and online bids for four-and-a-half hours of often breathless auctioneering.

The evening’s bubbling bidding would set a new world’s record “for the most expensive work ever sold to an online bidder” — and then, on another piece, go on to set another.

The most dramatic action came on a triptych — a three-panel painting — from the avidly collected British artist Francis Bacon. The bidding started at $48 million, then settled into a cat-and-mouse duel that involved a mystery online bidder from China who kept trumping the previous highest bid by $100,000. The work finally sold for nearly $85 million.

Another spirited round of bidding involved a “brightly colored forest scene” by an artist who committed suicide last fall. A work by that artist, Matthew Wong, had never sold before this week for over $62,500. At Monday’s pandemic-time auction, his forest scene went for $1.8 million.

Irrational exuberance, anyone?

And what has the world’s rich so excitedly exuberant? The stock market. In 2020’s second quarter, the world learned Wednesday, the shares of America’s 500 largest publicly traded corporations soared 20 percent, this century’s highest-ever quarterly S&P 500 ascent.

That rates as good news for anybody with appreciable dollars invested in the stock market — and particularly good news for the richest of the global super rich, the sort of folks who collect multimillion-dollar artworks as casually as the rest of us accumulate refrigerator magnets.

Researchers at Wealth-X have just published their latest annual Billionaire Census. The richer the billionaires, the new Wealth-X stats show, the higher the share of publicly traded stocks in their personal portfolios.

Billionaires worth no more than $2 billion, for instance, have 21.3 percent of their fortunes sitting in stocks. For billionaires worth between $10 and $50 billion, by contrast, stock holdings make up nearly half — 48 percent — of their net worth. That share rises to 76.8 percent for billionaires worth over $50 billion.

American billionaires dominate all these net-worth tiers. Overall, the Wealth-X stats detail, Americans account for 28 percent of the global billionaire population. The United States hosts 788 personal fortunes worth at least 10 digits, more than the combined billionaire populations of Germany, Russia, Switzerland, the UK, Hong Kong, India, Saudi Arabia, and France.

In 2019, the wealth of these U.S. billionaires rose 13.9 percent, according to the new Wealth-X data. Earlier this year, that wealth dipped sharply, then came roaring back, as the Institute for Policy Studies Billionaire Bonanza analytical updates have documented. Between mid-March — the point the pandemic first clobbered the United States — and mid-June, the total wealth of America’s billionaires climbed over a half-trillion dollars, from $2.948 trillion to $3.531 trillion.

Meanwhile, here in early July, the coronavirus pandemic is still setting national caseload records, and weekly unemployment claim totals have over the last 15 consecutive weeks run more than twice as high, the Economic Policy Institute reports, as the worst jobless claim week of the Great Recession.

How can the stock market be strutting so nicely amid these levels of health and economic disaster? Simple. All the wealth and power the super rich have amassed over recent decades is now paying off royally. The awesomely affluent have both a White House and a Federal Reserve committed to doing “whatever it takes” to keep share prices from collapsing. They have Wall Street’s back.

And so the wealth of the wealthy continues to pile ever higher, and Monday night’s landmark Sotheby’s auction offers one vivid marker of just how high that pile now soars. One painting up for grabs at the auction — Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled from 1982 sold for $15.2 million. In 2000, the same painting went for $398,500.

More articles by:

Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book:The Case for a Maximum Wage  (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press). 

August 13, 2020
David Correia, Justin Bendell, and Ernesto Longa
Nine Mile Ride: Why Police Reform Always Results in More Police Violence, Not Less
Vijay Prashad
Why a Growing Force in Brazil Is Charging That President Jair Bolsonaro Has Committed Crimes Against Humanity
Brett Wilkins
Teaching Torture: The Death and Legacy of Dan Mitrione
Joseph Scalia III
Yellowstone Imperiled by Compromise
Binoy Kampmark
Don’t Stigmatise the Nuke! Opponents of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty
Margot Rathke
The Stimulus Deal Should Include Free College
CounterPunch News Service
Critic of Wildlife Department Removed Day Before Scheduled Meetings on Revisions to Wolf-killing Protocols
Thomas Knapp
America Doesn’t Have Real Presidential Debates, But It Should
George Ochenski
Time to Face – and Plan for – Our Very Different Future
Ted Rall
Joe Biden’s Vice Presidential Pick is … ZZZZZ
Purusottam Thakur
‘If We Don’t Work, Who’ll Produce the Harvest?’
Robert Dreyfuss
October Surprise: Will War with Iran Be Trump’s Election Eve Shocker?
Gary Leupp
The RCP, Fascism, and Chairman Bob’s Endorsement of Biden for President
James Haught
The Pandemic Disproves God
Robert Koehler
Election Theft and the Reluctant Democracy
August 12, 2020
Melvin Goodman
Trump’s War On Arms Control and Disarmament
P. Sainath
“We Didn’t Bleed Him Enough”: When Normal is the Problem
Riva Enteen
Kamala Harris? Really? Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Kenneth Surin
The Decrepit UK Political System
Robert Hunziker
Freakish Arctic Fires Alarmingly Intensify
Ramzy Baroud
The Likud Conspiracy: Israel in the Throes of a Major Political Crisis
Sam Pizzigati
Within Health Care USA, Risk and Reward Have Never Been More Out of Kilter
John Perry
The US Contracts Out Its Regime Change Operation in Nicaragua
Binoy Kampmark
Selective Maritime Rules: The United States, Diego Garcia and International Law
Manuel García, Jr.
The Improbability of CO2 Removal From the Atmosphere
Khury Petersen-Smith
The Road to Portland: The Two Decades of ‘Homeland Security’
Raouf Halaby
Teaching Palestinian Children to Love Beethoven, Bizet, and Mozart is a Threat to a Depraved Israeli Society
Jeff Mackler
Which Way for Today’s Mass Radicalization? Capitalism’s Impending Catastrophe…or a Socialist Future
Tom Engelhardt
It Could Have Been Different
Stephen Cooper
Santa Davis and the “Stalag 17” Riddim
August 11, 2020
Richard D. Wolff
Why Capitalism is in Constant Conflict With Democracy
Paul Street
Defund Fascism, Blue and Orange
Richard C. Gross
Americans Scorned
Andrew Levine
Trump and Biden, Two Ignoble Minds Here O’erthrown
Patrick Cockburn
The Rise of Nationalism Has Led to the Increased Repression of Minorities
Sonali Kolhatkar
Trump’s Presidency is a Death Cult
Colin Todhunter
Pushing GMO Crops into India: Experts Debunk High-Level Claims of Bt Cotton Success
Valerie Croft
How Indigenous Peoples are Using Ancestral Organizing Practices to Fight Mining Corporations and Covid-19
David Rovics
Tear Gas Ted Has a Tantrum in Portland
Dean Baker
There is No Evidence That Generous Unemployment Benefits are Making It Difficult to Find Workers
Robert Fantina
War on Truth: How Kashmir Struggles for Freedom of Press
Dave Lindorff
Trump Launches Attack on Social Security and Medicare
Elizabeth Schmidt
COVID-19 Poses a Huge Threat to Stability in Africa
Parth M.N.
Coping With a Deadly Virus, a Social One, Too
Thomas Knapp
The “Election Interference” Fearmongers Think You’re Stupid