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  • An example of Still's abstract expressionism.

    Are the art markets telling us something about the global economy we don’t know? Like the old Watergate adage, if your really want to find out what’s going on, follow the money. In this case, it’s pouring into contemporary art.

    In its most recent auction, Sotheby’s sold $316 million of contemporary and postwar art. The sale was widely hailed for its heated bidding, led by the $61.7 million sale of a Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980) abstract.

    Oddly, with the world financial market in turmoil, you would think the super rich might be cutting back like everyone else. And, in a sense they are.

    The economy is wracked by uncertainty and the stock market is generating little or no return. At the same time, the huge pile up of sovereign debt in Europe suggests that inflation could be problem down the road.

    Given that scenario, the rich are investing their money in what’s known as hard assets. That could include gold, antique cars, or anything that typically appreciates in value, especially in an inflationary economy.

    As such, the Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art was the strongest since May 2008, just before the financial crisis and economic meltdown.

    “The sale blew every expectation away,” Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art said in a recent interview.

    Going into the auction, Sotheby’s set its presale estimate for the lots at $192 million to $270 million. When the final gavel fell the take, including commissions was more like $315.8 million.

    That’s a lot of dollars chasing the market.

    Clearly, the quality of the art was a factor as well. Works by Still are much in demand, and Sotheby’s had a group of four, being sold by the City of Denver, where a new museum dedicated to the master of abstract expressionism is opening.

    The group of abstracts alone drew $114 million, nearly twice the pre-sale estimate and a new record for Still’s work.

    Gerhard Richter was also hot. Eight of his works sold for $74 million, nearly three times the low estimate and also a new record.

    Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies for a Self Portrait” sold for $19.7 million.

    “It is incredible to see prices like this in a deep recession,” said one art consultant.

    “But people still have a lot of money, and it seems art is one of the very few asset classes where it’s safe to put your money — if you buy the right works.