The Mental Impossibility of Depreciation in the Mind of Someone Buying

Damien Hirst, Shark

Book Review: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson. If you are one of the many out there with the impression that contemporary art is a good investment, you may come away with a different impression after reading the $12 Million Stuffed Shark.

This book has been out for a while now, but I am just getting to it after having it recommended to me. The title of course refers to the work of Damien Hirst. That work titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living consists of a Shark preserved in formaldehyde and now residing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The book explores just what gives this work its value, and indeed looks at other contemporary art under this same microscope.

The book also explores the importance of branding in contemporary art, the inner-workings of auction houses and art fairs and how the value of work is maintained, perhaps with some flaire of artificiality. There’s also insight in the museum world with an interesting statistic that Gustauv Klimpt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, which sold for a record $135 million in 2006 and resides Neue Galerie in New York, cost more than several of the countries newest art museums including the De Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Myself working as a docent in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, I enjoyed a story not related to contemporary art. Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits is now hanging on the Amon Carter as its new home in Arkansas is being constructed. The painting was sold in a sealed bid auction. The second highest bidder, a partnership between the Metropolitan Museum of art and the National Gallery of Art, fell short by $10 million. The auction winner, Alice Walton, did not make Sotheby’s initial list of 12 likely bidders.

While there are many stories out there about great profit made from painting purchases, as the book points out there are stories of loss we don’t hear about in the media. The author also notes an important gauge index in the contemporary art market considers only works sold for a profit- similar to considering only stocks with gains and averaging the gain.

One of the best exchanges in the book, which seems to summate its spirit is between Principal Auctioneer for Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer and critic Jerry Saltz. Meyer says “The best art is the most expensive because the market is smart.” To which Saltz responds “This is exactly wrong. The market isn’t ‘smart,’ it’s like a camera–so dumb it’ll believe anything you put in front of it.”

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