May 04 2012


Art valuation datapoints of the day

Felix Salmon, Reuters

May 3, 2012 11:11 EDT

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.

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.

That’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.

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.

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.

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