Ionuț Bălan: A Dead Painter Is Non-Inflationary4 min
Van Gogh sold nothing during his lifetime, while Hitler was able to make a living from painting. But the common point is that both painters are dead. The economists are warning that the purchasing power of money has dwindled significantly over the past two decades. But art lovers reply that, on the contrary, Picasso’s works have appreciated in value, it’s not the dollar that has depreciated.
by Ionuț Bălan
Both sides are right in their own way. We have to observe, however, that while the monetary base of American currency has increased manyfold in 20 years, Picasso hasn’t painted anything since his death in 1973. Only a few previously unknown works, discovered after his death, have been added to the “artistic base”of Picasso.
Which gives a new meaning to the old saying “a good artist is a dead artist.” The work of a deceased artist is final. Nothing can be added to it. Consequently, nothing can have an impact on the scarcity of goods owned by collectors. It’s no accident that investments in classic art are compared to those in gold. And this is true both in cultural and financial terms.
Examples of scarcity resulting in product value are also available beyond painting. Swedish writer Stieg Larson died at just 50, leaving the famous ‘Millennium’ trilogy ( ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’, ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest’), adapted into many movies in Sweden and in Hollywood, with so much success that publisher Norstedts who printed the three books decided to generate inflation and commissioned another writer for a sequel of Larsson’s series.
Yes, of course, sometimes things go haywire. On the market of whiskey collection, for instance, old Scotch is increasingly valuable, even at lower quality; among the 10 most valued distilleries, 7 are out of business. This behavior is absurd, because if you buy something just for its old age, it has something to do with lots of money in the wrong hands. Rarity itself does not makes an object valuable. It’s like paying much for a Trabant car and say you got your hands on a collection car, which would reveal a problem of evaluation.
So let’s rather go back to painting, because Vincent van Gogh 1888 ‘Sunflowers’ is not a Trabant or Wartburg, but the work who has held for longtime the record price at auction houses. What would have become of the Dutchman’s work if he hadn’t committed suicide at 37, on July 29, 1890? Would it have reached the same quotation?
This being said, we have nevertheless to get out of the way the obsolete – even if still operating – cultural cliché of “authentic” artists necessarily living in poverty and anonymity, completely oblivious to the economy and markets and uninterested in money, like van Gogh. A very condescending, if not offending stereotype, because it portrays artists like some kind of Rousseau’s “noble savages”, too primitive to be able to live within the society, and thus having an “inner purity” unblemished by the supposedly mercantile society.
The artists themselves must be the first to come out against this appalling cliché. There’s no inexorable law to connect an authentic artist to poverty. There’s no contradiction between artistic value and the ability to sell your work at the highest price the market is willing to pay. The fact that nowadays marketing has substituted content in many cases in no way means that authentic content doesn’t deserve the best marketing to become widely known; quite the contrary.
A proof of this, Romanian Adrian Ghenie’s ‘Lidless Eye’ was sold at Sotheby’s for 55 million Hong Kong dollars – 6 million euros – after Nickelodeon grossed £ 7.1 million – $ 9 million – at Christie’s in London and ‘Self-portrait as Vincent van Gogh’ was auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York up to $2.9 million, from an initial estimate of $200,000 to $300,000.
But be aware that Ghenie does not paint more than 10-15 canvases every year, and sells even less, following the wise advice of his agents. Which means he has his own strategy for preserving the rarity of the pieces with his signature in collector portfolios. In brief, he has a non-inflationry creative and marketing policy.