Monday, May 18, 2015

Picasso & Company and the Art Price Bubble

Bubbles of the market kind are irrational. That's because the intrinsic value of what is being bought and sold is lost in the game of buying something in the hope (and perhaps for some, the expectation) that it can be sold to someone else at a good profit.

Of course the buying and selling of things, ideally gaining profit, is the basis of non-purely-socialist economies that have advanced beyond the barter stage. And while it has been asserted that something's true value is what people are willing to spend to obtain it, there is also the fact that "bubbles" occur -- the most famous being the Dutch tulip mania of the 1630s. In the case of tulip, stock market or art auction bubbles, the realization that a bubble has occurred implies that price and intrinsic value were out of synch.

Unlike tulips and, say, dot-com stock prices in 1999, art bubbles are harder to detect in part due to the slower pace of the market. Nevertheless, prices for paintings by a given artist usually vary over the timespan of decades.

In recent days, sensationally high prices were recorded for modernist artists at actions, especially the 11 May 2015 Christie's auction in New York as reported here and here.

Here are some paintings that comprised the bubble.


$142.3 million - Pablo Picasso - Femmes d'Alger (version 'O') - 1955
As I discussed here, Picasso was well past his creative prime by the 1950s when the painting above was made. Aside from the fact that I consider Picasso a grossly overrated artist, I find it hard to believe that this painting was purchased for it intrinsic merits -- it almost surely was a matter of speculation.

$82.9 million - Mark Rothko - No. 10
Some people view Rothko paintings with a large dose of mystical awe. Eighty-plus million dollars strikes me as being an expensive way to get a "high."

$67.4 million - Picasso - Buste de femme - 1938
Of similar vintage to a previous record-setting Picasso, his portrait of his mistress Dora Maar.

$56.2 million - Andy Warhol - Colored Mona Lisa
I admire Warhol as perhaps the art world's consummate con-artist (that was his main artistic talent). Nearly $60 million for a silk screen print?!?

$47.8 million - Francis Bacon - Portrait of Henrietta Moraes
Ugly, but the most beautiful feature for the auction house was the name of the painter.

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