The Duchamp market

By Felix Salmon
April 4, 2010
Richard Dorment writes:

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In his wonderful essay about Warhol and authenticity, Richard Dorment writes:

The single most important thing you can say about a work of art is that it is real, that the artist to whom it is attributed made it. Until you are certain that a work of art is authentic, it is impossible to say much else that is meaningful about it.

He ends the essay with the story of a highly important Warhol which was part of the collection given by the art dealer Anthony D’Offay to the English nation, but which D’Offay “has been forced to withdraw” from his gift as the Andy Warhol Foundation has refused to certify it as authentic. Without that stamp of official authenticity, the painting cannot be sold or exhibited at the Tate.

This curiously binary it-is-or-it-isn’t attitude towards Warhol looks even odder when you compare it with the market in Duchamps. Sarah Thornton, in the Economist, examines the market in Fountain, the iconic Duchamp urinal which was originally made in 1917 but which didn’t last long:

The urinal went the way of many of Duchamp’s early ready-mades; it was smashed or trashed. So insignificant was the porcelain pissoir at the time that no one can remember exactly what happened to it.

Decades later, beginning in 1950, Duchamp started authorizing curators to purchase urinals in his name; in 1964, he made an edition of 12 replicas in an edition of eight with four proofs. These fountains aren’t urinals at all: they’re earthenware sculptures modeled on the Stieglitz photo of the 1917 original. But they have real value — one sold for $1.8 million in 1999.

It turns out that the story doesn’t end there. There’s a 13th Fountain — a “prototype” which was signed by Duchamp and owned by Andy Warhol, and which was sold by Sotheby’s in his 1987 estate sale. Sotheby’s put an estimate of $2,000 to $2,500 on the piece; Thornton doesn’t say whether the estimate was so low because the auction house didn’t really consider it to be an authentic Duchamp in the first place. It was bought by Dakis Joannou for $65,750; he, for one, is happy to talk about its “historical importance”.

And there’s more! There’s a 14th Fountain, belonging to Gio di Maggio, and a 15th, belonging to Luisella Zignone; neither is signed by Duchamp, but both have been shown in museums. There might be a 16th, owned by Sergio Casoli, and finally there’s a 17th, which Arturo Schwartz, who oversaw the production of the of the 1964 edition, seems to be willing to sell for $2.5 million.

Duchamp purists says that these supernumerary unauthorized Fountains aren’t Duchamps at all — but they clearly have value. Museums will display them, collectors will buy them, and dealers will happily talk nonsense about them:

Daniella Luxembourg, co-owner of Luxembourg & Dayan, a New York gallery that recently held a Duchamp mini-retrospective, says the artist’s market has “the atmosphere of relics in a religion,” adding that “with globalization, the differences between what was signed by Duchamp and what was in his vicinity will become smaller and smaller.”

My feeling is that all of this is right and proper. The market price for something should be determined by the market; so long as questions about authenticity are clearly understood by both buyer and seller, there’s no reason to effectively ban trade in these things between educated and consenting adults.

The question of whether a museum should exhibit the questionable Duchamps is a little trickier, since doing so has the effect of ratifying their authenticity and increasing their market value.

The Economist has decided to run Thornton’s piece under the cute headline “Rogue urinals”, with a subhed asking “Has the art market gone Dada?”. The answer, of course, is no: the market has grown up, and doesn’t feel the need to by nannied by self-appointed guardians of an artist’s estate. Would that the same thing happened with Warhol.

(HT: Maneker)


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“The single most important thing you can say about a work of art is [...] that the artist to whom it is attributed made it. ” – what utter nonsense.

The only way that statement makes sense is for people who are buying a physical token associated with a reputation. Art as a brand, art as marketing, the artist as the product.

Art’s value lies in the effect it has on those who experience it; that effect is the product of what is intrinsic in the art, and what the experiencer brings to it. The label, presumed intent, authorship, framing, etc., are all part of the work, but to elevate any one of these above all else, to be paramount, is ignorant.

Authorship as paramount matters most only to dealers and the marks they sell to, the philistines who wish to peacock their wallet, to purchase a share in a fashionable bubble.

Posted by BarryKelly | Report as abusive

I agree with BarryKelly.

The single most important thing about a work of art is whether the art connects with an audience — not who created the work of art.

A different set of considerations come into play in art collecting as an investment activity. Art historians have some basis for examining the authenticity question too. However, these questions are unrelated to questions of quality.

Orson Welles has a great discussion of this topic in his film “F for Fake”.

Posted by Franklin010 | Report as abusive

What I get from the post is further evidence that the rational man theory of economics is on shaky ground. Let’s take Warhols soup can. What is the difference between a soup can I copy and Warhol’s soup can??? Millions of dollars in the market. But in reality, they would be indistinguishable.
Authenticity is no more than the fact that a real dollar is worth a dollar, while a counterfeit is worth nothing.

Posted by fresnodan | Report as abusive

I remember reading this article, and finding it amusing for all sorts of reasons that Dormant probably didn’t intend. Art that is nothing more than a speech act (which is really what Dormant’s article is about), may still be ‘art’, but it is difficult to see how it can be very interesting art (except among senior undergraduates contemplating a term paper in philosophical aesthetics, and their supervisors). More ‘importantly’, given that the explicit issue is monetary value, it is not likely to be very enduring (Duchamp not withstanding – even in his case, it is only a hundred years, so far, when he is making some real distance with Raphael and Titian we can talk).

Posted by seanmatthews | Report as abusive

Well, one can never be quite sure about these things but Duchamp himself is supposed to have said, “I don’t believe in art. I believe in artists.” He’s also said to have been more interested in ideas than commodities.

What Marcel might’ve had in mind for certain art business professionals could be, “Let them eat urinal cake.”

It was just an idea, but they did it anyway.

Posted by HBC | Report as abusive