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May 20, 2013 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts | [ssba]

The Price of Art

Think of the most valuable item you own—perhaps a vehicle or a piece of jewellery. Now think of the most valuable piece of art you own. That is, if you are actually in the minority of people that have ever paid for an original art piece. For most of us, art never makes it to the StudyLink-funded shopping list, and whenever the media reports on another famous painting being auctioned off for millions, it comes across as not just incomprehensible, but ridiculous. So what makes people spend their fortunes on a piece of canvas, and is any piece of art really worth it?

The top ten most expensive paintings in the world, painted by the likes of Renoir, Van Gogh and Picasso, together hold a monetary value of just over $1.6 billion. Cézanne’s The Card Players tops the list, being the current most expensive painting in the world at $250 million. Considering that these works are, essentially, merely paint upon canvas, art can be thought of as the world’s most expensive commodity by weight.

By buying a renowned piece of art, the buyer also buys the satisfaction of owning an archetypal object of wealth, not dissimilar to the more socially acceptable splurge on a piece of diamond jewellery, flashy car or even a particular clothing brand. Of course, a couple of million is much different to a couple of thousand, but what elevates art is the originality and cultural history behind it. Van Gogh shot himself and will never paint again. Lamborghini died too—but his factories will keep churning out vehicles with his name. Knowing that you alone, and no one else, owns a masterpiece of the whole of art history is an enticing concept, and has proven to be a competitive driving force in art auctions. Furthermore, for better or for worse, the modern world equates monetary worth with importance, and the fact that art can continue to hold seven-figure values allows truly exceptional works to be preserved and respected.

The value of art is not just seemingly ridiculous in terms of private ownership, but more sentimentally, in terms of preservation. Where there is a demand there must be a supply, and this has given rise to an estimated billion-dollar underground black market of stolen art. While it may seem that no one would be foolish enough to buy and then possess a known piece of stolen art, it seems that the private enjoyment of a piece is enough for some to secretly spend millions on a painting or sculpture—and there are even romantic subtleties to this concept!

However, while the black-market purchasers may be individually lavishing their love upon an artist’s work, it does deprive the public of that piece, with many works being stolen not from private collections but from museums. The largest art heist, and also the largest property crime in history, was in 1990 when 13 pieces, together worth $1.2 million, were stolen from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The pieces remain relevant—in an effort to bring back the pieces for the public, the museum announced in March this year a $5 million reward for any useful information for their return. Millions of dollars to personally own a piece and millions of dollars to keep them available for the public—the money shows the double-sided demand for art.

Art can be very, very expensive, and sometimes it seems senselessly so. It is fair enough to judge someone for spending a fortune upon a painting, but only if you also equally judge someone for spending a smaller fortune on a Karen Walker ring. The lucrativeness of the art world validates and preserves it, and underneath all the thefts and the dropping of millions, there is an undeniable sentiment of genuine affection for pieces of art.


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