“We do have some of the billionaire collectors,” says the art dealer Jeffrey Deitch, sitting in the skylit attic office of his iconic SoHo gallery in New York. “But most of our clients are younger people, close in age to the artists. And so it’s not at all connected to the financial marketplace. It is not investment buying.” He says those last two words with a slight sneer; investment buying is code for the M.O. of opportunistic collectors, the kind of people who hope to make a killing when they flip works at auction.

Deitch, a mild-mannered, fiftysomething guy in glasses and a seersucker suit who used to run Citibank’s art-investment division, likes to emphasize that Deitch Projects champions emerging talent. “With younger artists who often have never before had solo shows,” he says, “it’s not the same set of buyers who are spending $86 million for a Francis Bacon.” But it’s hard for anyone in the art world to ignore the auction hype machine, given that it’s not just recently deceased greats like Bacon who are commanding dynastic sums but artists still among the living: A six-year-old Richard Prince painting that was $100,000 when it was brand-new can sell for $6.6 million (as Man-Crazy Nurse #2 did at Christie’s in New York earlier this year). Or an 11-foot-tall stainless-steel Jeff Koons sculpture, $1.1 million just seven years ago, can go for $25.8 million (as Balloon Flower did at Christie’s London).

“C’mon, let’s go downstairs,” says Deitch, eager to reveal his upcoming show. A dozen or so workers are installing it, and the centerpiece consists of thousands of small, carefully arranged black and white tiles, which, when assembled, look like the pixelation of an antique video game. It’s a work by Tauba Auerbach, a 27-year-old San Franciscan five years out of Stanford’s art program. It covers the entire floor of the gallery; we’re actually standing on the edge of it. Deitch is talking about the piece, but all I can think about is how much the handful of tiles beneath my feet might be worth at auction a few years from now.

“At this point I pretty much stay away from collectors,” says the artist Dan Colen as he lights another cigarette in his vast Tribeca studio. An impossibly tall, lanky dude with a semi-studied dirtbag look (scruffy beard, shirt halfway unbuttoned to reveal scraggly chest hair), Colen, a former New Jersey skate rat, is now, at 29, an art star whose paintings and sculptures have been shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and are regularly snatched up by A-list collectors. “Earlier on,” he says of meeting his buyers, “it was really exciting—I had understandings of money that existed that I couldn’t have even imagined. You know, a millionaire when I was growing up was, like, a guy who had a million dollars. And that was, like, as rich as people got.”