It's week 4 of the Coronavirus quarantine here in Paris. Like a few billion other people on the planet, I'm in confinement mode.
I step out once a day, to the supermarket, and am otherwise sealed off in a high-rise with views of a deserted Paris. When I stare down at the streets below, or take a stroll across the bridge (pictured), I see blue skies, trees in bloom, and all the promise of spring. Yet there are very few humans out on the streets.
The landscape feels lunar, as if we were living in another time and place, on another planet, or in a badly scripted dream. And all because of a lousy microscopic virus.
A paradox of a virus, I must say: completely innocuous to some, incapacitating and utterly deadly to others -- and at the same time, a bug that we're told we all have to catch before we can go back to normal. We live with that contradiction. We're terrified of catching the virus, observe its ravages, hear the gruesome statistics, grieve and mourn. Yet we also hope to catch it at some point, unwittingly, so we can be immunized and have the right to go out.
What happens next? Forecasting the future is a risky pursuit. With the exception of Bill Gates, who warned the world of a lethal pandemic five years ago, few can make predictions with accuracy. Still, the post-Corona world is likely to be be different from the pre-Corona world in a few respects. A number of pre-existing realities, beliefs, and behavior patterns are almost sure to go out the window. Here are a few:
- "Greed is good" -- That was the mantra of the main character in Oliver Stone’s movie “Wall Street”: Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas). And it became the mantra of generations of men who turned into high-flying financiers, making millions if not billions in a single transaction, driving fast cars, buying expensive art, and collecting trophy girlfriends. Even after the 2008 financial crisis, the greed-is-good mentality prevailed among the world’s super-wealthy. Helped by ultra-low taxes and interest rates and a booming stock market, they accumulated assets -- property, cars, yachts, planes, artworks -- at a dizzying rate. Post-Corona, such flashy displays of greed and financial flamboyance will be less admired. The mood music, even among the world’s richest, will shift dramatically. Me-me-me individualism and markets-know-best capitalism will be overtaken by a concern for the common good and for the collective interest. And the shiny assets accumulated by the 1 percent and their copycats -- homes, cars, yachts, artworks -- will radically drop in value. Why? Just take a look at the U.S. unemployment figures: 10 percent of the U.S. workforce is out of a job. That's in the world's No. 1 economy. Imagine the outlook everywhere else.
- $500 million artworks -- Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” sold at Christie’s for $450 million in 2017, reportedly to a Saudi royal. There have been plenty of other nine-digit painting sales at auction in recent years, including works by Picasso and Modigliani. The art market has been underpinned by greed (see above), one-upmanship, and bragging rights: the ability to say “My Picasso is bigger than yours” and be admired for it. Greed is not going away, and neither is one-upmanship. But in a world where millions are going to be out of work, and millions more impoverished -- not to mention the hundreds of thousands of virus deaths -- astronomical bidding wars over blue-chip art are unlikely. High-net-worth individuals with fancy collections will see their art holdings drop in value, and some will look to sell to limit their losses. So the market will quickly suffer from too much supply and too little demand. Paying nine figures for a painting will suddenly seem like folly. As for whether the buyer of “Salvator Mundi” got value for money…
- Mass tourism -- The world’s greatest museums and heritage sites have long been complaining of a phenomenon known as ‘overtourism’: too many travelers cramming into the Louvre to get a Mona Lisa selfie, and squeezing inside the Sistine Chapel to ogle the ceiling. They have posed a consistent threat to world heritage. Now, Coronavirus is slamming the brakes on overtourism. First, much of the world’s museums and heritage sites are currently closed. When they reopen, tourists from countries such as China, who accounted for so much of recent international travel, will stay home -- for economic reasons, yes, but also for fear of contamination and xenophobic attack. Inside museums, the numbers are going to drop dramatically, with a corresponding impact on revenue. The only beneficiaries are serious art lovers, who will finally be able to see artworks from up close.
- 300 art fairs a year -- Before Corona, the world was hosting some 300 art fairs annually, nearly one for every day of the year. Art had become a status symbol for the swelling numbers of new billionaires: a must-have, a luxury to accumulate alongside the homes, the cars, and the yachts. Now, with international travel seriously curtailed by the Coronavirus, stock markets tumbling, and so many companies threatened with extinction, the discretionary incomes of the high-net-worth will be seriously diminished. The biggest art fairs will survive this downturn. So will tiny, local, niche fairs catering to collectors who will be traveling less and still looking for nice items. But mid-sized fairs (like mid-sized galleries) will suffer, and some may well disappear.