I have said before that I have a blind spot when it comes to the visual arts. I just can’t get excited about viewing a painting. Poetry or music can move me to tears, but a painting is just there to break up an expanse of blank wall. Now I’m sure that the fault lies with me, not the artists, and that those who love paintings do so genuinely. But can a work that looks–to me, at least–as though it was perpetrated by a talented seven-year-old with his new box of crayons really be worth $120 million?

That’s the price realised at a Sotheby’s auction for Edvard Munch’s The Scream. I should say one of them, because he painted four pictures with the same title. Just to give some perspective on the preposterous price paid for this work: the same sum could build a brand new container ship equipped with a full suit of containers; it could buy 46 Bugatti Veryons, the most expensive car in the world, with change left over for a few cases of Pol Roger vintage champagne to drink in them; it could pay 66,667 thirld world workers for an entire year.

Compounding my confusion is the fact that one can obtain a printed copy of the painting–essentially indistinguishable from the original–for a few dollars. What is the advantage to owning the original apart from the mere fact that it is the original? The owner of this work will, quite apart from the initial purchase price, need to continue paying huge insurance premiums, as well as for the secure space needed to house the work. I could understand better if it was bought by a museum and there displayed for the public benefit, but I just can’t wrap my head around the reasons a private collector would want this work.

But then, as I said, I have a blind spot.

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Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

5 Responses to Scream!

  1. Beechmount says:

    For a multi-billionaire, 120 million is mere pocket change. In ten years, the painting will fetch millions more, thus for some it is an investment. For a few others, the rarety of the artwork makes it unique–and then there are the collectors who”just have to have it”.

    For the most part, I share your sentiments with respect to paintings but there is something about a landscape I like. If it is old, like some of those I own, they are depicting something that often has changed or perhaps been absorbed by an urban concrete jungle-a moment in time that has changed forever, a precious reminder that we live in a world where change is a certainty.

    • Mark says:

      I’m not so sure of the investment potential of art. The fine art market has all the hallmarks of a bubble–absurdly inflated prices for some works out of all proportion to their usefulness. It reminds me of the great Dutch tulip bubble. A lot of money can be lost by collectors.

      • Beechmount says:

        Historically, fine art has been recession-proof. There are rare examples where a particular painting has sold for less than anticipated at auction. Since, however, I don’t belong to the group of people with deep enough pockets to purchase art works for tens of millions of dollars, let alone thousands, it matters little to me if someone looses on this type of investment. I think the world economy is in for a major bubble burst and some people feels that art is a good place to invest, to protect their millions.


  2. Con-Tester says:

    It’s like the stock exchange and derivatives: The perception is what counts, and the perception is fuelled largely by hype and puffery. Being able to claim ownership of an original Monet, Picasso, Dali, Sargent, van Gogh or whatever is the upper crust’s currency for measuring wealth and refinement, and it’s this that these ludicrous sums reflect, not an artwork’s intrinsic value. (The defence that it is unique for being original is easily pierced, as you have shown.) It is then no coincidence that the prices such pieces command are typically well beyond the reach of Joe and Jane Soap. In that sense such a painting is a bit like a banknote or a bearer bond except that, unlike the latter two, it can also be put on display for its alleged aesthetics and/or meaning.

    In short it’s Snob Factor writ large.

    And let’s not forget that the age-old philosophical question What is Art? also looms menacingly here. Is it pricey because it’s art, or is it art because it’s pricey?

  3. […] week or two ago I wrote about my “blind spot” with reference to the visual arts in general and, in particular, The Scream by […]

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