The Value of Priceless

May 1, 2013

There is much talk about the value in dollars of art works these days. It is hardly a new subject, but now in this age of recession if not outright depression art seems to be moving in the market for truly outrageous sums. This would not be a bad thing if living artist made big money off the secondary market, but generally this is not the case. True there are a few artists like Damien Hirst that do well, but often it is the work of dead, often long dead, artists that do the best at auction and even if the heirs of an artists do well, which sometimes happens, being dead cuts into your fun of being a successful artist.

The real question is changing taste in a changing market. Is the value of half a shark in a tank of formaldehyde (The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living), Hirst again, or an off-register photo silk screen, any of many Andy Warhols, worth more than an old master? Currently the answer is yes, but there was a hot market for tulip bulbs in 17th century Holland until some bright person figured out that they were flowers. The results were not pretty and many good folks were left holding a bouquet and little else. Generally the art market is victimless crime: fools and their money parting. We suffer in this inflated market as good art is pulled from the public view and sequestered into private collections and, worse, into vaults where the works are seen by no one. Of course, public institutions have a hard time competing in this hyper-inflated market.

OK, what’s to be done? Actually, nothing. We are screwed. Money talks and the market listens. Art has always been the game of the rich and privileged. Their is more than a little irony in that artists often work on the cheap for the ultimate benefit of the rich. I salute the rare artists, good and bad, who make a fortune during their lifetimes. Rare and beautiful objects, whatever they are, will always have a high market value and owning them gives status to the collectors. It can buy them into the upper reaches of ‘polite’ society. At onetime the newly rich would, at least, buy art and give it to public collections and gain entrance into society and, possibly, if they were lucky and pious, Heaven as did Enrico Scrovegni, an early Italian banker, around 1305 when he commissioned Gitto to paint the walls of his chapel in Padua. Hope it worked. Nice pictures in any case. Today buyers are often buying art as a hedge against inflation and even, in some cases, as a method to laundry money from drug deals.

The_Man_with_the_Golden_Helmet_(Rembrandt)_wikimediaMost people are more impressed with the money value of an art work than the work itself. If a painting is worth many millions of dollars then it must be good as the market is always right. What is interesting that when a painting looses value such as was the case when a work is deemed not to be by a master, but by another as happened with the Rembrandt Project when a painting like The Man in a Golden Helmet was said not to be him, but by an unnamed student. The value dropped like a rock, yet the painting did not change one iota. Hell, I even went To Berlin to see that painting when it was still a Rembrandt and I thought it was worth the trip. School of Rembrandt is worth a fraction of the value of a real Rembrandt. Indeed under the project some paintings became non-Rembrandts then they changed their minds and became Rembrandts again (The Polish Rider). What’s the poor public to do much less collectors who have real money invested?Rembrandt_-_The_Polish_Rider-wikimedia

There is a school of thought that thinks maybe we should take the names of artists off of all art works and let the chip fall where they may, but that might confuse the market and who would want to do that? The signing of art works by artists is fairly recent, mostly post 1400’s, and yet we realise some earlier unsigned art works are ‘better’ than others and we do so by looking at the works and making judgements. I carry a small polished rock in my pocket that is quite the beautiful object. I have no idea what type of rock it is, although the person who sold it to me at a rock shop for a couple bucks told me, and I don’t care, but I cherish it and I have with me all the time. It may not be art, but I like it and that is enough.

Granted great art works are not polished stones and I wanted them valued and saved and, what is most important, be able to see them. Even that is getting difficult when ‘block buster’ exhibitions in North America charge twenty-five bucks and up to get your foot in door. When I was a child growing up in San Francisco in the 1940’s and early 50’s, my grandfather used to take me to the city’s art museums all of which were free as they were went I later went to the San Francisco Art Institute. I would like to think that might have had something to do with me taking up a life in art. Today it cost real money to go the fine arts museums of San Francisco not to mention the Institute. This has changed the nature of art both in its making and seeing and I would say not for the better.

Expensive art education and its problems are another subject. One of the last hold out of quality tuition free fine arts eduction, Cooper Union, appears to be going down the tubes. I will save this debate for another time.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB, Canada, Saturday, 27 April, 2013.


  1. Charming as always!

    • And thank you for your comment.

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