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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Value of Art

When society assigns a monetary value to art, things get pretty weird.

No one will dispute that Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci was good at his craft.

What is interesting is that a little known painting that was previously believed to be a portrait by an 19th century obscure German artist has now been relabeled as an original work by Leonardo da Vinci.

The painting was once listed in a Christie's catalogue under the name of "Young Girl in Profile in Renaissance Dress" and valued at $19,000. It sold in 1995 for $19,000 at auction. 12 years late it sold again for a just a little more.

So far so good. A number of collectors clearly liked the painting enough to fork over about 20 grand for the privilege of hanging it on their wall. That's a reasonable price for what is apparently a very fine painting. I don't know any composers who ever earned that much for a single work.

Now it turns out that the painting may not be the work of an obscure German artist at all, but the work of famed Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci. Over night, its' estimated "street price" has soared from $19,000 to as much as 160 million buckaroos.

That's 8,421 times the original price, or a 159,981,000% increase in monetary value.

What's changed?

Every brush stroke on the work is the same as it was the day before.

What does this say about our celebrity culture? Why are people so prone to assign value based on familiar names and preconceived assumptions?

It indicates that the art business is a little like a Ponzy scheme. One collector buys a work, sells it for a ridiculous price to another, who sells it for an even more inflated price to yet another, and so on. The fame of the "Ponzied" artist grows with each sale. Buyer's hysteria starts to feed upon itself as the reputation of the artist mushrooms with each iteration of the scheme. The frenzy continues to ensue beyond logic, and outside of any normal appreciation for the intrinsic aestetic value of the actual work of art itself.

This is all great if you are a da Vinci, but it's a raw deal for the obscure artist. No matter how great their work may be, it's not a brand name. The public wont waist their time with it. "I've never heard of that artist."

I'd even go as far to say as this is a form of discrimination. Put yourself in the shoes of that obscure 19th century German artist. One market value for the work was attributed based on his/her identity, but when the painting is associated with a Celeb, it makes world news and translates into big bucks. Are Italians better than Germans?

Forget the celebrity status. Use your own eyes folks. Use your own ears too.

The rediscovered da Vinci is now locked in a Swiss bank vault. Seems like an appropriate place for a priceless masterpiece, don't you think?