Art at a Price

Author: Juhasz Imre -

The most expensive work of art ever sold is currently Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi, which fetched $450 million. $50.3m of this was auction fees, so someone had a truly good day at the office.

Although this is a massive amount of money, even for an artwork, it’s hardly that surprising. It’s a painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and it’s over 500 years old. There are only twenty works by this artist in existence, and this was the only one available to private buyers. If you wanted a Leonardo da Vinci painting (and obviously some people really, really wanted one), this was the only one to buy. Let’s put aside questions over its authenticity for the moment. If the Mona Lisa was ever to come up for sale, it is a certainty that it would exceed that price, possibly even doubling it.

In the last ten years, record sale prices for works of art have been smashed again and again. There are more people and business entities able to afford to pay over $100m for pieces of art, while the number of available pieces by grand masters either shrinks or remains the same.

Does this mean that art is a sure-fire profit maker? Well, not really. There are issues. The value of an artwork is, basically, whatever people are prepared to pay for it. Sometimes this vastly exceeds expectations, and makes the news. The reason it gets on the news is because it doesn’t happen every day.

Grand masters aside, the price of modern art – art by artists who have lived in the last 100 years or so – can go down as well as up. Living artists even more so. We have seen this with Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. This is because appreciation of modern art is even more subjective than that of the works of grand masters, and there are a lot more pieces available to buy. In the case of living artists, the market still doesn’t know how much more they are going to produce. Damien Hirst almost has a factory producing artwork.

Another issue is the amount of capital a high-end objet d’art can tie up. A million dollars is a considerable amount of money. That’s a lot of cash to have tied up in a picture. When the economy takes a dip, a lot of capital needs to be released to make it through hard times, and the art is often the first thing to go. The market gets flooded and prices go down.

The people spending over $100m on works of art are, generally, people with billions of dollars. The Salvator Mundi was bought by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism to go in its branch of the Louvre museum. It’s as close as it could hope to get to the Mona Lisa. As economies grow in the east, more capital available for spending on art is released. As China and former Soviet states begin to produce more billionaires, there are more people in the world to sell these works to. That does not mean the price of art will keep going up. These emerging economies can be even more fragile than our own, and there is also the possibility that western works of art may fall out of favour. Western billionaires and western galleries are still doing their bit to prop up the market, though, as they always have.

So, should you invest in art? Well if you define “invest” as “put [money] into financial schemes, shares, property, or a commercial venture with the expectation of achieving a profit” then no. It is not a sure-fire way of making money. Should you spend money on art? Yes, you should. The Salvator Mundi would never exist if someone (possibly Louis XII of France) hadn’t paid Leonardo da Vinci to paint it. There would be no van Gogh paintings if Vincent’s brother hadn’t sent him money for paint.

You can be sure that Louis XII didn’t pay Leonardo to paint because he knew that in 500 years time it would be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. He wanted the best picture of Jesus that he could get, so he paid the most talented person to hand to paint it. The cost would have been an extravagance he could afford as opposed to a shrewd financial investment.

Someone once told me, “Never buy a piece of art that you wouldn’t be happy owning if it had no financial value at all.” Fortunately, this has been the only type of art I have ever been able to afford, but it’s probably also true of the only paintings van Gogh sold in his lifetime. I doubt very much that the original purchaser could have any idea of what their financial value would one day become. This does not mean that my framed picture of a bear riding a motorbike is ever going to be worth millions, and I don’t care. I bought it because I liked it and wanted it on my wall.

So, be it a Christie’s auction room or a car boot sale, a piece of art is worth whatever someone is prepared to spend on it at the time of sale. Afterwards, its price may go up, or it may go down. If you buy art for art’s sake (as you should), then it will always be priceless.

And lastly, do please support artists. If someone is making something you like, then contribute financially to their work. That way they can keep making art and not resort to being bad waiters or half-hearted office workers.

Global Seven News

Thorin Seex

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