Peter Vincent: Contemporary art as an investment
- January 19, 2009 9:00 AM |
- By Michael Hlinka
Money Talks is a daily business column from CBC radio.
By Peter Vincent, a writer based on Saltspring Island
(Listen to the original audio of this column - runs 2:44.)
The Museum of Modern Art in New York features a 14-foot shark suspended in a solution of formaldehyde. It is a work by British artist Damien Hirst, originally commissioned by Charles Saatchi in the early 90s for 50,000 British pounds. At the time, the Sun newspaper called it “50,000 pounds for Fish without Chips.” The artist entitled the work “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”
It sold a few years ago for $12 million. Twelve. Million. Dollars.
I’m not here to argue the aesthetics of a fourteen foot shark pickled in formaldehyde - after all, this is a business column. But I am here to talk about a new book that explores the brave new world of contemporary art as investment.
The book, by York University prof Don Thompson, is entitled The $12 Million Stuffed Shark - The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art.
For most of us, the art world is a muddy concoction of auctions, galleries, and museums punctuated by the occasional Globe and Mail headline screaming that one of Jackson Pollack’s drip paintings just sold for $140 million, or Andy Wharhol’s Campbell Soup Cans going for $14.5 million. Those Wharhol soup cans started life in 1962, originally purchased for $1,000.
At first blush, investing in art seems like a pretty good deal. You simply buy a canvas from an emerging artist, put it on your wall, wait for a few years, and reap millions.
Don Thompson bursts that bubble pretty quickly in this book. Much like golf, for every hole in one in the art world, there are thousands of hooks and slices that will land you in the rough.
The contemporary art world is not so much about the artistic merit of a piece as it is about branding. If a painting has been owned by Dennis Hopper, or the Tate Museum has one of the artist’s works in its permanent collection, or the artist jumped off a bridge shortly after finishing the piece, it can add millions to the value.
But fair warning. If you are looking to enter the art world, there is a lot of competition. Petro dollars are everywhere. The nouveau riche are described in the book as ‘in heat’ when it comes to purchasing art. Wealthy Russians, Chinese, and Saudis are falling all over themselves purchasing anything and everything that smacks of Western Culture.
Art galleries that traditionally charge up to 40 per cent to sell an artist’s work are up against the wall, competing with auction houses and art fairs for a dwindling supply of product. The two giants of the auction world, Southeby’s and Christie’s - the Coke and Pepsi of the Art World - exercise so much control over the contemporary art world that they can effortlessly make or break an emerging artist.
Museums like the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim have become franchised juggernauts in the art world as well, opening up stunning museums in such unlikely places as Bilbao, Spain.
Don Thompson’s book shines a light into all the dark corners of the art world, demonstrating that as an investment tool, art collecting isn’t for the faint of heart. Unless you have very deep pockets and are willing to play some very long odds, you may be further ahead playing the slots in Vegas. At least there you’ll get free drinks.
(The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson is published by Doubleday Canada.)
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