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Artmart: Shocking price tags!

August 05, 2012

The price of art attracts more public attention than any other commodity — except perhaps oil. Exceptionally high sums attract wide media coverage together with a public response that ranges from outrage and ridicule to admiration. The orthodox view is that this situation is not only new but bad; that once art was not subject to financial speculators, and that the price it fetched was more in keeping with its value.

Yet, even the most cursory look into history shakes that orthodoxy. Holland in the 17th century was a rich and powerful imperial nation which traded and speculated in art. John Evelyn, the 17th century diarist, records that it was quite usual to find Dutch farmers paying the equivalent of up to 3000 sterling pounds for paintings and then reselling them at ‘very great gains’. What now defines the contemporary art market and distinguishes it from earlier ones, is that it is a global market and is recognised as such by the players. The most visible sign of this is at a major auction. It may take place in New York, but the telephone bidders are likely to be in Lausanne, Tokyo or elsewhere as in the body of the auction room.

Recently the Gulf state of Qatar purchased Cézanne’s, 'The card players' for more than 250 million dollars. The deal, in a single stroke, set the highest price ever paid for a work of art and overturned the modern art market. Qatar outbid Larry Gagosian and William Acquavella, two of the most famous art dealers today to acquire it from the Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.

If the price seems insane, it may well be, since it more than doubles the current auction record for a work of art. However, for its 250 million dollars, Qatar gets more than a post-Impressionist masterpiece; it wins entry into an exclusive club. There are four other Cézanne ‘Card players’ in the series; and they are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Courtauld, and the Barnes Foundation. For a nation in the midst of building a museum empire, this is instant credibility. Is the painting, created at the cusp of the 20th century, worth it? Well, Cézanne inspired Cubism and presaged abstract art, and Picasso called him “the father of us all.” Then take any art history course, and a ‘Card players’ is likely to be in it. It’s a major, major image.

Another shocker: a ton of porcelain sunflower seeds created by the artist Ai Weiwei have been sold at Sotheby's in New York for over 782,000 dollars (480,000 pounds) in May 2012 — a record for work by the Chinese dissident artist. The seeds were originally displayed at the Tate in London before the exhibition had to be shut down when dust from the tiny pebbles raised concerns for the health of visitors. The work’s 100 million seeds were manufactured by traditional methods and delicately painted by hand in the city of Jingdezhen, the major centre for the production of Imperial porcelain for over 1000 years.

Weiwei has long been fascinated by the cultural traditions of materials and objects, and of porcelain in particular — the survival of its artisan production, its supreme quality, its early traditions of mass production and global export and the value still invested in it as a cultural artefact in China today. Fabrication of the required 150 tons of seeds, from trials to completion, took almost two-and-a-half years and, at its peak, employed around 1,600 artisans, placing Weiwei — a frequent visitor to the community — in the ambiguous positions of factory boss and art patron, controlling workers’ destinies just as the old elites had done.

Edvard Munch's famous painting, ‘The scream’, was sold for 119.9million dollars (73.9million pounds) at Sotheby's in New York on May 2, 2012, making it among the most expensive artworks ever sold at an auction. The work, created in 1895, was sold to an anonymous telephone bidder in just less than 12 minutes. The piece was sold by businessman Petter Olsen, whose father knew the Norwegian artist. Munch created four versions of ‘The scream’, three of which are held in museums, but the painting sold is thought to be the most valuable because its frame features a poem handwritten by Munch himself.

‘Der schrei der natur’ (The scream of nature) is the title Munch gave to these works, all of which show a figure with an agonised expression against a landscape with a tumultuous red sky. Olsen said, “‘The scream’, for me, shows the horrifying moment when man realises his impact on nature and the irreversible changes that he has initiated.”Jonathan Jones's writing on his art blog for The Guardian reminds us that, “‘The scream's’ price tag should make us all despair. The art market has reduced Edvard Munch's harrowing insight into the human condition to a saleable plaything.”

He concludes that, “To experience Kafka's Metamorphosis — a comparable masterpiece of anxiety — you have to read it, and to do so is to inhabit a terrible experience. But someone can buy the most harrowing painting in the world, put it on their wall and perhaps never feel a damn about it. If they did understand it, they would do something more generous with the money. There is something sick about a society that treats its highest cultural totems in this hollow way, selling screams, buying the abyss. Perhaps ‘The scream’ says more about our time than we know.”