Editor's Note: This archived article was first published in 1998. While annoyingly flip in tone, its points remain valid.
This guy's lament does raise an interesting question: What
determines whether a painting or antique trades for $millions or for
Here's my list of what determines the mega-bucks versus medium
bucks in art & antiques pricing:
A beleaguered hedge fund manager sold his antique silver collection at auction a few weeks ago. He was quoted in the NY Times bemoaning the fact that his entire collection had fetched about the price of one mediocre Impressionist painting.
1) A Pretty Face (art world
Consider Impressionist paintings: above all, they are
pretty. Nearly anyone looking at nearly any quality of
Impressionist painting has a visceral "Oh how lovely!"
response to their luminosity and pastel colors. (Contrast this viewer
reaction with that elicited by dark, northern European Old Master
portraits: "Wearing that collar, you'd be grouchy, too.")
Conclusion: If a work of art is easy on the eyes, it's a lot more likely to trade for mega-bucks.
2) Easy to Love (art world
Impressionist subject matter most often involves landscapes or
pretty nudes. Nearly everyone on the planet can personally
relate to these themes.
Depictions of nature are not culturally/religiously specific like the skewered saints of Italian Baroque painting. (Viewer response to a martyred saint: "I don't care how well it's painted, a guy being skinned is disgusting!")
Naturalistic subject matter also avoids the social caste problem. (Viewers' response to a finely-wrought, 19th century silver epergne: "A centerpiece? That thing is bigger than my whole dining room!")
Conclusion: If a work of art is easy to understand, it's a lot more likely to trade for mega-bucks.
3) Cool Quotient (art world
Consider the Getty Museum:
Major instititions have major endowments which, despite recent stock market reversals, have reinvested interest income that continues to produce vast profits. (Just try
bidding against a major museum at auction; you'll be lucky to get
your paddle warm.) Many institutional buyers have virtually
In the museum world, as elsewhere, money equals influence. Major museum curators are arbiters of taste for their professional peers in less prestigious posts. In securities charting, we would call this a self-reinforcing trend.
Conclusion: If a museum seeks it, an art work or antique trades for mega-bucks.
4) Star Quality (art world parlance=a
Consider Van Gogh: If that ear story hadn't gotten
around, we would all be thinking of Vincent Van Gogh as some
moderately talented, 19th century painter with a
repetitive handwashing disorder.
But the story did get around and his obsessive personality became transformed into a metaphor for artistic heroism. You get books, you get movies, you get songs and--pretty soon--you get blockbuster museum shows.
Conclusion: If the artist develops a cult-of- personality, his work trades for mega-bucks.
This guy's lament does raise an interesting question: What determines whether a painting or antique trades for $millions or for $thousands?
Here's my list of what determines the mega-bucks versus medium bucks in art & antiques pricing: