Mark Rothko & Trophy Paintings: Or What Is It Really Worth?

It's both a cliché and a truism that "starving" artists depend on discovery by critics and endorsement by rich patrons in order to spread their reputation for genius. It's another cliché and truism that many die undiscovered. In other words, the intrinsic value of a painting depends on the painter's reputation. Investment bankers don't worry about being discovered and they don't worry about where their next meal comes from. The intrinsic value of money may be arbitrary, but a million dollars are still a million dollars. They can buy lots of stuff. *(For my purposes here, read intrinsic as a consensual value which in turn dictates price.)

We are in a recession and in a bear market, and stock prices have plummeted. Toxic assets and banks involve a question of mark-to-market, which is another way of asking whether they have intrinsic value, or whether they simply should cost what the market will pay.

In current economic conditions, how do art prices find their level? How do prices form at all in the art market? Why $73 million for a Mark Rothko and not $7.3 million? So here is one consideration of the question:

"If you want to own things, art is a pretty good bet. Buy art, build a museum, put your name on it, let people in for free. That's as close as you can get to immortality . . . I love art. It is uplifting. If the choice is between buying another building or a Pollock, I'd go for the Pollock every time."

"When a living artist knows his works can sell for tens of millions of dollars--which is the case with Jasper Johns, say, if not quite yet with Damien Hirst--how does he respond to that opportunity? And how does a buyer feel about remunerating a living artist so hugely and directly? To buy a work of art is one thing; to make another man rich is somewhat different. It demystifies the process, at least. More

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