Jeff Koons, Lobster (2003), auctioned at Christies for 6.3 million USD in 2013.
Let’s say you have some money in your bank account (let’s say 150 million dollars...) and you want to spend it. What do you spend it on? Buying a new private plane? Boring. Buying a new mansion? Already got three of those. You finally make the decision to spend your money at an auction and buy important modern art pieces. For example spend your fortune on an inflatable red lobster. Not only can artwork bring you great joy and aesthetic pleasure, but you can brag about your purchases to your friends as well (you don’t own a Picasso? That’s so 2014).
In the second week of May 2015, a particularly large group of rich people must have had similar thoughts, when all auction records were broken. This week will be remembered for the first (drumroll, microphone switched on) BILLION DOLLAR art auction in history. Artworks broke all records and amazed and shocked the public. But the biggest ‘what the heck’-moment must have been when Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger, Version O (1955) sold in Christie’s auction Looking forward to the past, for more than 179 million dollars. It was the highest bid, followed by Giacometti’s L’homme au doigt (Pointing Man, 1947) sold for approximately 141 million dollars.
Can you imagine spending that much money and raising your hand (or if you are a bit cooler that that, just blinking at the auctioneer) because you want to own this artwork so badly? Or maybe it just doesn’t matter if you spend some more of your many millions? The staff of Christie’s must have had the night of their lives, since they made sales for 895 million dollars that night. They probably opened some super expensive bottles of Champagne afterwards, celebrating this huge success, not caring about the enormous headache awaiting them the next day.
These figures are absolutely jaw dropping. Heads will spin among observers who don’t understand “what the fuss is about” abstract art. What do these records mean? What does this unprecedented week in art history represent? There are many possible takes on this issue, and perhaps forgetting numbers and statistics for a moment, it is possible to realise that the right questions actually lie on the surface. Does art have a measurable value? How is that determined?
What is the value of Duane Hanson’s life size sculptures of ugly Americans? Apparently an average of a couple hundred grand. No biggy.
Four suited guys with mop top haircuts once said: “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.” Money can buy you art though.
But what is art for a collector, if not an obsession, a priceless pleasure? The rapid growth of “affordable art” platforms has widely demonstrated how buying and collecting art is not, and was probably never meant to be, a prerogative of people of means. Art history is full of examples of works of art once considered worthless that later became invaluable. Art has no practical use; art might not be a primary necessity. It fulfils, nevertheless, a profound and universal need for beauty. And we truly believe that anyone should be able to enjoy beauty. Art for all.
Author: Rosanne Schipper