A pile of stools for $575,000. A cabinet full of surgical instruments for a cool $2.5 million. The global economy’s in a tailspin, but among the world’s elite collectors, works are selling for record prices. Walking around Miami Beach last weekend, taking in the 10th edition of its extravagant Art Basel art fair, you sensed something strange in the air. Patou’s “Joy” drifting off the pashmina? Polished walnut wafting out of the Bentleys? More basic than either: the ineffable aroma of money itself, rising from the art out for sale. By the end of the first day, a customer at Mary Boone’s booth had spent $575,000 for a pile of battered stools turned into a nest—by Ai Weiwei. A blue lozenge on a white rectangle—by Ellsworth Kelly, on view at Matthew Marks—had gone for $1.5 million. A glass cabinet full of surgical instruments, by Damien Hirst, had sold for nearly $2.5 million at White Cube’s stand. Despite the big names attached to these objects—and whatever their artistic worth—any normal observer would immediately wonder: Stools, for half a million dollars? Three times that for some plain paint on canvas? Why is art so damned expensive? To read more from Newsweek’s Blake Gopnik, click here.