Monday, 8 February 2010

The super rich connoisseur and the schoolboy

Felix Salmon on the recent record $104 million sale of a Giacometti sculpture:
[T]his is proof of the primacy of the fungible. The most valuable works of art are increasingly not unique, but rather part of an edition: the Giacometti is just one of ten, including four artist’s proofs. Hugely-expensive works by Koons are always in an edition; sculptures by Murakami often are; and in the world of painting, where uniqueness is pretty much a given, the most expensive artists — people like Warhol and Prince and Hirst — are often those who paint the same thing over and over again, allowing many collectors to buy essentially the same artwork.

This, of course, contradicts what we would think intuitively about scarcity in art and collecting more generally: that the unique is worth more than the multiple. Unique is always used as a term of approbation; it provides an important part of an artwork's aura, perhaps the most important part. Or so we'd think.

Why, then, are the most valuable artworks ones that are issued in an edition, ones that are deliberately rendered non-unique? Well, I suppose that if you were looking to buy one of an edition and the others pieces were all owned by wealthy, discerning people or institutions you would get a degree of comfort that there was some objective value there. In art this is particularly important as objects have no utility value and there is no universally agreed benchmark of quality. In fact, it provides the supreme example of something only being worth what someone's willing to pay for it.

So the more people there are who are not only willing to pay for a work but have actually paid for identical versions of it, the more validation you have that the version you're buying is worth something. Some sort of consensus about value has been established and it's been backed up by hard cash. Ultimately, it comes down to the old saw that there's safety in numbers.

And this turns out to be an extraordinarily valuable advantage in an artwork. Uniqueness is obviously still an attractive value. But in this instance, it hasn't merely been superseded, it's been entirely obviated. This must mean that the comfort factor, the underwriting effect of multiple versions being variously owned, is so valuable that it not only offsets the loss in value from the lack of uniqueness, its net effect is actually to add a premium. In a group of broadly similar, highly expensive artworks security of value seems to trump everything.

Now, the proposition that human beings prefer the security of the herd over the risks of singularity is fairly unremarkable. But what is perhaps peculiar is to see it demonstrated so clearly amongst the super-rich, who one would think less prone to this sort of behaviour. When I used to trade the latest craze in the school playground - whether top trumps, coins, marbles or stamps - uniqueness was a supreme value. Might we therefore conclude that schoolboys exhibit more discrimination and confidence in their judgements than the average super-rich art collector?

6 comments:

worm said...

its the modern scourge of 'accessibility' - whether art, handbags, perfume or champagne, marketers know that there's a perfect point where you can mass produce an object, whilst keeping the price JUST high enough to make it an aspiration to aquire the item

Brit said...

Good insight, Gaw. But there must presumably be a bell curve - after a certain number of editions the value will decrease?

Recusant said...

How thoroughly depressing it all is.

Gaw said...

Worm: But in this instance the art work is made more accessible only for it to become more expensive. And I bet it's an outcome that wasn't anticipated by anyone, including any marketers.

Brit: I would suppose so too. There are probably enough Andy Warhols out there to estimate the inflection point too.

Recusant. That was my initial reaction. But then once I began picturing the auction room as a superior sort of football terrace or a well-appointed corral for dumb beasts, I somehow started to feel better.

dearieme said...

Them's not eating pilchards, them's trading pilchards.

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