Felix Salmon

Giacometti and the primacy of the fungible

By Felix Salmon
February 7, 2010

How did I miss the $104 million Giacometti? Marion has a good round-up of the reactions, to which I’d just add that this is proof of the primacy of the fungible. The most valuable works of art are increasingly not unique, but rather part of an edition: the Giacometti is just one of ten, including four artist’s proofs. Hugely-expensive works by Koons are always in an edition; sculptures by Murakami often are; and in the world of painting, where uniqueness is pretty much a given, the most expensive artists — people like Warhol and Prince and Hirst — are often those who paint the same thing over and over again, allowing many collectors to buy essentially the same artwork.

At the same time, there was clearly a lot of auction psychology going on here. I don’t know whether the identical sculpture being sold by Larry Gagosian for $45 million was cast in Giacometti’s lifetime or not — but even if it wasn’t, that doesn’t come close to explaining the difference in price. It’s just that when you get caught up in the heat of an auction — when you have the winning bid, and you think you own the piece, and then someone else comes along to snatch it out of your hands, and you think only about the marginal cost of taking it back — then it’s very easy to ratchet the price of a great piece like this one into the stratosphere.

The previous work to hold the record for most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction was the Guennol Lioness, which sold for $57 million in 2007, despite being only three inches tall. It’s much more unique than the Giacometti, and can reasonably be described as “the greatest sculpture on Earth” by Sotheby’s auctioneer Richard Keresy; no one is likely to say that about cast 2/6 of the Walking Man. But the Giacometti, largely by dint of its existence in ten different places around the world, is a cultural icon in the way that the lioness never could be.

Every so often, people ask me why I allow my work to be reprinted on Seeking Alpha without them paying me — or Reuters — any money. And I think the answer might lie here: the more you replicate something, the more valuable it becomes. And not just in aggregate, either.

Giacometti’s Walking Man resonates culturally in a way that few other artworks do. And if and when its auction record gets broken, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it was by another cultural icon: a Warhol Marilyn, perhaps, or a Jasper Johns flag. These things are valuable because they’re not unique; because there are enough versions of them that they’ve managed to gain extremely wide currency. I just wonder when the romantic conception of a unique artistic masterpiece might start coming back in vogue.

Update: Gareth Williams comments, quite rightly:

If you were looking to buy one of an edition and the others pieces were all owned by wealthy, discerning people or institutions you would get a degree of comfort that there was some objective value there. In art this is particularly important as objects have no utility value and there is no universally agreed benchmark of quality. In fact, it provides the supreme example of something only being worth what someone’s willing to pay for it.

So the more people there are who are not only willing to pay for a work but have actually paid for identical versions of it, the more validation you have that the version you’re buying is worth something. Some sort of consensus about value has been established and it’s been backed up by hard cash. Ultimately, it comes down to the old saw that there’s safety in numbers.

4 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

for an A+, tie this in to your previous post (and interfluidity’s, and alephblog’s) about liquidity.

Posted by q_is_too_short | Report as abusive

I note that the story says there were around ten bidders competing for this sculpture. Would it have been in the interests of the owners of the other nine Walking Men to bid up the price of this one?

Either to increase the total resale value – after all, they now possess assets notionally worth $900 million-odd – or to provide collateral to borrow against?

Now that I think about it, does this sound anything like the London property market…?

Posted by LeighCaldwell | Report as abusive


Interesting thoughts, which I’ve extended a little here:

http://gawragbag.blogspot.com/2010/02/su per-rich-and-schoolboys.html

In short, I’ve expanded on the attractions of the fungible in artworks.

Posted by Gaw | Report as abusive

So the key here is “cultural icon”, and perhaps uniqueness is a not a detriment to the price. Think of unique pieces that are also cultural icons (e.g. Michelangelo’s David).

Posted by londenio | Report as abusive

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