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Dec. 9, 2019, 12:15 p.m. EST

Someone paying $120,000 for a banana duct-taped to a wall at Art Basel is the perfect picture of wealth inequality

Art sales and auctions have been setting records, which could be another sign of the wealth gap, according to a Citi report

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By Nicole Lyn Pesce


MarketWatch photo illustration

This is bananas.

An Italian artist duct-taped a banana to a gallery wall in Miami as part of the Art Basel festival — and it sold for $120,000. Actually, he’s sold two editions already.

There’s nothing especially fancy about the exorbitant fruit displayed at the Galerie Perrotin, which is titled “Comedian.” Maurizio Cattelan, an art world prankster perhaps best known for creating a $6 million, 18-carat-gold toilet that he named “America,” grabbed the banana from a local Miami supermarket, Artnet reports .

And it doesn’t symbolize anything in particular. “The banana is supposed to be a banana,” Cattelan said, although he told Artnet that the shape of the fruit, the angle it was taped to the wall and its placement in the booth were all “carefully considered.” He came up with the idea a year ago, when he was thinking of creating a sculpture shaped like a banana, according to a statement from Galerie Perrotin.

“Every time he traveled, he brought a banana with him and hung it in his hotel room to find inspiration,” the statement continued. “He made several models: first in resin, then in bronze and in painted bronze (before) finally coming back to the initial idea of a real banana.”

It’s unclear how often the banana will be replaced, as it will probably turn black and begin to spoil in about a week. The gallery expects to throw out the one currently on view at the end of the week, unless the collector wants to keep it.

Art Basel guests have found it so a-peeling that Cattelan has jacked the price up to $150,000, which is being shopped to museums. (Two have reportedly already expressed interest.) Not too shabby considering you can buy four bananas for $1 from most NYC street vendors, and duct tape runs $5 to $10 on Amazon.

But plenty of people on Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +0.72%  found this whole concept hard to swallow.

But then over the weekend, jaws dropped again when performance artist David Datuna peeled the $120,000 banana off the wall and ate it. He explains to MarketWatch that, “They were going to change the banana every few days anyway. So I was not really eating the banana. I was eating the concept.”

Read more: A man ate the $120,000 Art Basel banana — and didn’t think it tasted that rich

Yet the latest global art market report from Citi Global Perspectives & Solutions shows the time is ripe for such headline-making art sales. People are spending more money on high-end paintings, sculptures and other works, and the report notes that ultrahigh net worth individuals collectively hold $1.74 trillion in art and collectibles. Indeed, the average price for fine art at auction globally jumped from $26,578 in 2000 to $49,234 in 2014, according to Citi’s /zigman2/quotes/207741460/composite C +0.22% 2015 Global Art Market report.

That’s thanks in part to the rise of Chinese art investors; China has accounted for a third of the art market’s global growth. But the authors also suggest that the rising art prices on the top end reflect widening wealth inequality; America’s 1% hasn’t had this much wealth since just before the Great Depression, even as millions of people live paycheck to paycheck. “Art may, moreover, also serve to signal one’s wealth, status, background, or taste — or give access to a particular lifestyle (fairs, exhibition openings, auctions) or social circle (artists, dealers, collectors),” the report reads.

Opinion: The super rich elite have more money than they know what to do with

And several auction records were set in 2018 and 2019. They include Sotheby’s /zigman2/quotes/201410575/delayed ZA:BID +0.0063%   selling Amodeo Modigliani’s largest painting (a nude) for $157.2 million in May 2018, which was the most expensive work of art in the auction house’s history. The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller sold at Christie’s last year for $835.1 million. In May of this year, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit sold at Christie’s New York for over $91 million — setting an auction record for the most expensive work by a living artist. And Banksy’s satirical “Devolved Parliament” — which replaced British politicians with chimpanzees — sold for $12.1 million at Sotheby’s London in October.

Christie’s reported its highest grossing year ever last year, with $7 billion in total art sales. Phillips also reported its best year in 2018 with $916 million in art sales world-wide. And Sotheby’s private sales hit a five-year-high to reach $1.02 billion, while its total consolidated sales (including auctions, private sales and sales from inventory) reached $6.4 billion, according to Citi.

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