Felix Salmon

The uncollectable artwork

By Felix Salmon
January 19, 2010

A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter is an artwork by Caleb Larsen, currently for sale on eBay. If it hasn’t sold in the next couple of days — the minimum bid is $2,500 — it will go back on eBay. On the other hand, if it does sell, it will still go back on eBay. That’s what it does, as clearly explained in the legal contract accompanying the work:

Artist has created a work of art titled “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter (2009)” (“the Artwork”) which consists of a black box that places itself for sale on the auction website “eBay” (the “Auction Venue”) every seven (7) days. The Artwork consists of the combination of the black box or cube, the electronics contained therein, and the concept that such a physical object “sells itself” every week.

This is clever, I like it a lot, and not in particular because of the insidery nod to Robert Morris. Many artists have tried to remove their art from the commercial aspects of the art world — by making it free, for instance, or by putting on performances, or creating public installations. This one does it by making an artwork which is so commercial that it can’t be collected. You could buy the piece today, and it might be worth $100,000 in a few years’ time. But you wouldn’t own it in a few years time, and you would have personally gained only a tiny fraction of the increase in the piece’s value, if anything at all.

One of the smart things about the way the piece is structured is that its owner has to sell it, even if the price is lower than he values it at. Let’s say I think this is a wonderful work, worth $10,000. If I win it for $2,500, I have to relist it at a price which “may not exceed current market expectations for the Artwork based on the current value of work by the Artist” — and which in any case can only increase once per quarter. Given that the amount I paid is pretty much by definition the current market value of the work, that’s the amount it’s going to get relisted at. And since I’m not allowed to bid on the work once I own it — that would violate eBay’s “shill bidding” restrictions — anybody else can pick it up for $2,500, a massive discount to where I value the work, leaving me to pay all the eBay fees.

Right now, the piece is on show at the Lawrimore Project in Seattle, in an exhibition devoted to the work of the up-and-coming artist Caleb Larsen; it’s quite easy to see the market value of Larsen’s work going up or down from its current level. I hope that future iterations of the auction will include the prior auction history of the work; it’ll be interesting to check in on the box once in a while, to see how it’s doing, price-wise. I certainly hope it’ll stay on eBay for years and decades to come.

4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

What a creative idea.

I’m curious if/when eBay will find some way to adjust their terms of service to prohibit the box from functioning in perpetuity. If that happens, does the owner-left-standing finally get to own something?

-Aaron @ Lawyerist

Posted by Lawyerist | Report as abusive

If I’m understanding your description of the once-per-quarter price change, there should be some difference in the bidding behavior at those times. The person holding the work on a quarter gets to increase the minimum bid, so the auction just before the quarter should see people willing to bid higher – especially since their higher bids will increase the “market expectations” for the work.

Posted by KenInIL | Report as abusive

So many touchstones here…

Woody Guthrie’s fascist-killing guitar
Black box trading tools
“By way of deception, thou shalt do war”

Posted by Uncle_Billy | Report as abusive


I think you’re misreading the conditions. By my reading, at each change of ownership, the new owner may establish a new value for the artwork. If the artwork does not sell in a particular quarter, the owner may revalue it.

Posted by NewSouthZach | Report as abusive

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