Art valuation datapoints of the day

May 3, 2012
$120 million yesterday

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As you have no doubt heard by now, The Scream sold at Sotheby’s for $120 million yesterday, prompting Mark Gongloff to wax apocalyptic about “the big squeaky speculative bubble in the art world”. He’s absolutely wrong: whether there’s a bubble or not, this purchase was not speculative. The buyer, I’m quite sure, intends to keep it until he dies; this is not going to get flipped for some great profit. Still, this painting is a great example of exactly what sells for huge amounts of money these days.

Remember the Card Players which sold for $250 million? Or, for that matter, the Jeff Koons Rabbit I wrote about earlier this week, which is probably worth the same amount of money as The Scream, more or less? The three artworks all have something in common: they’re editions, broadly speaking. There are four Screams, five versions of the Card Players, and four Rabbits. And in each case, the value of any given work goes up, not down, as a result of the existence of the others.

munch.jpgThat’s because what people are buying, when they buy one of these pieces, is a cultural icon, something instantly recognizable. As Clyde Haberman says of the Scream, “if you’ve never seen a tacky facsimile of it, there’s a chance that you have also never seen a coffee mug, a T-shirt or a Macaulay Culkin poster”. And truth be told, it’s not exactly Good Art. Edvard Munch is a decent Norwegian symbolist, but to give you an example of what we’re talking about here, the painting on the right, Vampire, is the one which held the previous auction record for the artist, at $38 million. It’s really not all that far from what you find in any art class of tortured adolescents.

The real value of the Scream, then, the reason that a pastel on cardboard sold for $82 million more than the price of the oil-on-canvas Vampire, lies precisely in all those mugs and t-shirts and Home Alone one-sheets. Whatever was being bought, here, it wasn’t really art, in any pure sense. It was more the result of a century’s worth of marketing and hype.

And while the Scream is an extreme example of the phenomenon, it can be seen in every major modern and contemporary art auction. It explains pretty much all of Damien Hirst, for instance, not to mention Takashi Murakami, a man whose paintings go up in value proportionally with the number of Murakami Louis Vuitton handbags spotted in the wild.

Meanwhile, if you want to see a pure art market, one based on connoisseurship rather than branding, well, there’s no such thing. But one very interesting place to look is China, of all places — the market which westerners love to dismiss as the place where the only thing that matters is the label on your bottle of Chateau Lafite.

In fact, the Chinese market is much more sophisticated than that. The record price for a Chinese painting, $65 million, is held by Eagle Standing on Pine Tree with Four-character Couplet in Seal Script, a large piece by Qi Bashi dating back to 1946. Qi was a master, who painted the work at the age of 86, and who worked very much within a long tradition of Chinese art. There’s nothing revolutionary or iconic about this work: it’s just a masterful piece which can be located near the end of a very long tradition.

Or, to take another example, an old porcelain bowl, roughly the size of your hand, and looking like nothing so much as the thing which lives by the door where you keep your keys, sold for $27 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong last month. It might be a trophy, but it’s not an obvious, branded trophy in the way that the Scream is.

Now, I don’t think that the Chinese auction market is particularly transparent or reliable: I suspect that it’s used quite a lot as a way of laundering bribes. But it does frequently set records which don’t fall into the branded-object-of-fascination category. And for that alone it makes a refreshing change from what we’re seeing in New York.


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