A probing, dazzling, character-and-fact-chocked panorama of the art market during the past century, by London Observer art-columnist Watson (Wisdom and Strength, 1989, etc.). Watson looks at paintings and, to a lesser extent, books and Oriental art. He covers collectors, dealers, auction houses, and sales, accounting for the impact of personalities as he does that of wars. Into the synthesis of anecdote and analysis go such characters as the Impressionists' ""promoter"" Durand-Ruel, as well as Duveen, Vollard, Kahnweiler, Picasso, and Leo Castelli. Watson portrays the rise of the auction houses--Sotheby's and Christie's--and reviews controversial transactions and all the spectacular auctions where such works as Rembrandt's Portrait of Titus and Picasso's Au Lapin Agile changed hands and broke records. The author shores up his far-flung narrative with a scaffolding of financial facts and a discussion of art-price trends. (The monetary points are made clear because historical ""numbers"" are translated into current dollars--i.e., ""Raphael's Colonna Altarpiece was sold to J.P. Morgan for a record Â£100,000 [$10.4 million now]."") A friendly skeptic, Watson warns of the ""misleading nature of auction success."" Van Gogh's Sunflowers, for instance, sold for a record Â£22.5 million but taxes probably depleted the take to some Â£3.5 million. Watson concludes that art is not ""steady and predictable"" like other markets but is subject to swings such as the one created by the Japanese who bought up to 40% of the Impressionist and Modern pictures auctioned in the late 80's, sending prices soaring. Now what? Pop Art and easy-access art, combined with the push of auction houses, increased the art-buying population but narrowed its focus to contemporary stars. ""Art collecting has become a more concentrated, less varied, lets adventurous activity,"" Watson says. Watson informs those who know nothing of art and money while asking questions that will rivet and provoke those in the thick of the trade.