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The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

3.81  ·  Rating Details ·  3,088 Ratings  ·  147 Reviews
Why would a smart New York investment banker pay $12 million for the decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark? By what alchemy does Jackson Pollock’s drip painting No. 5, 1948 sell for $140 million?

Intriguing and entertaining, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is a Freakonomics approach to the economics and psychology of the contemporary art world. Why were record prices achieved
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 16th 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan (first published July 1st 2008)
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The Monuments Men by Robert M. EdselThe Rape of Europa by Lynn H. NicholasThe $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don ThompsonProvenance by Laney SalisburyPriceless by Robert K. Wittman
Books About The Art World
3rd out of 33 books — 11 voters
Ways of Seeing by John BergerSeven Days in the Art World by Sarah ThorntonThe $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don ThompsonOwning Art by Louisa BuckIsms by Sam Phillips
(Contemporary) Art
14th out of 17 books — 8 voters

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Community Reviews

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Feb 27, 2016 Caroline rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Caroline by: Jan
Shelves: 5-star-books, art
Only yesterday, Tracey Emin's installation "My Bed" was sold at auction for 2.5 million.

Tracy Emin My Bed
Saatchi Gallery.

This book explains such phenomena. It was written for people who read about multi-million dollar prices for contemporary artworks and wonder how such eye-watering figures are reached. Most of the art discussed in the book is conceptual, but then a lot of contemporary art is conceptual.

It looks at artists like On Kawara, whose pictures of dates - literally pictures of dates - sell for up to
May 17, 2011 Sparrow rated it liked it
Recommends it for: artists in for a wake-up call
Shelves: non-fiction, law, reviewed
The art business seems to me like this weird cross-section of fashion and property. I read this book for a class that I loved with this really great professor who has the quietest, most monotone voice of any professor I’ve had. It was a lovely class, though. I played Bejeweled 3 through most of the class sessions so that I wouldn’t space off from what the professor was saying, and it worked. He is one of those professors who has been doing this for so long that it seems almost boring to him, exc ...more
Mikey B.
Aug 30, 2016 Mikey B. rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Mikey B. by: Caroline
PARIS - Musée du Louvre

This is a marvelous book – like “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex Art but Were Afraid to Ask”. I love looking at art; can’t afford any of it – except at a flea market.

The whole spectacle of the current art world is all here – it’s lavish, sordid, secretive, pretentious... Its’ about the lust of collecting and the thirst for status.

The more the work is “branded” the more its’ craved.
“Branded” is at several levels:
- a “name” artist
- exhibited by a “name” museum
- a “name” collector
Jul 19, 2012 Mike rated it really liked it
Disclaimer, cause I might as well just get it out of the way: If contemporary art makes your blood boil, your hopes for western civilization sputter, or gag reflex engage, this is not the book for you. If you’re in this group, it might be better to just go on your merry way and pretend you never heard of Chris Ofili or Damien Hirsch or Tracy Emin or Charles Saatchi.

None of which is to say that you have to like contemporary art to read this book. Thompson isn’t particularly interested in getting
Dec 23, 2010 Charlie rated it it was amazing
I fucking love this book.
And so will you, if you've ever stood in, say, the Tate Modern, looking around the antiseptic white room for the exhibit that was advertised outside, looking and looking and looking and seeing nothing but a regular old leather jacket crumpled in the corner, and realizing, as you stand there looking, that the leather jacket crumpled in the corner IS the exhibit, and that the museum paid over a million dollars for it. If you've had that sort of experience and found yoursel
Mark B.
Jan 02, 2010 Mark B. rated it liked it
Shelves: museum-books
I'm going to have to give this one a mixed-review. First of all, I was concerned by some of the mistakes that slipped past the book's editors (i.e. referring to Thomas Hoving as the former director of MOMA (instead of the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and references to the Whitney Museum of Modern (rather than American) Art, etc.) Such errors throw up all sorts of red flags for me. I wonder what other oversights I missed for not being familiar enough with the topics to start with. That said, I mus ...more
May 24, 2009 Amalia rated it liked it
As an artist, I had a love/hate relationship to this book. On the one hand, reading all about the art world had me gripped like a Ludlum novel, but the context made me feel both disheartened and pissed off!

I was at Cornish College of the Arts when Jeff Koons came in for a lecture. I found him to be quite off-putting...and to boot, I thought his work sucked. I didn't care for it then, and after more exposure, I still don't...although, having seen his floral puppy at the Guggenheim in Bilbao did g
Alborz Baghipour
Aug 07, 2015 Alborz Baghipour rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art, economic
این کتاب به نوعی مشهورترین کتاب حوزهی اقتصاد هنر شناخته میشود. نویسندهی آن، دُن تامپسون، که خود مجموعهدار آثار هنری و و استاد بازاریابی و اقتصاد است، با شیوهای جذاب به بررسی سازوکارهای موجود در دنیای هنر معاصر میپزدارد
چه میشود که یک نقاشی از «جکسون پولاک» که با پاشیدن رنگ بر روی یک تختهی چوبی آفریده شده به قیمت 140 میلیون دلار فروخته میشود؟ درحالیکه برخی هنرمندان در طول عمر خود حتا نمیتوانند یک اثر را بفروشند؟ سازوکار حراجیهای هنر چگونه است؟ نقش دلالان، مجموعهدارن و گالریها در بازار هنر معاصر چی
Feb 02, 2016 Arnied rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Why is some modern art worth millions of dollars? Well, it's not the actual art. Critics don't control it. And the public has very little to do with it. It is really a small collection of collectors who buy, display, loan, then sell said art. They are the ones who create the value for the pieces they believe in. And if they get it in a show, then a museum, then in front of dealers and buyers.. it could be worth millions like Hirst's Shark. The lead culprit in this game is the buyer of said shark ...more
Ilya Kavalerov
Jul 09, 2014 Ilya Kavalerov rated it it was amazing
The aim of this book is to answer two related questions: What makes the work of an artist valuable, and why is anyone willing to pay top dollar for usually un-extraordinary and occasionally unlikable objects sold as art? The answers are clear in the opinion of the author. Artists are valuable because of their brand image, which is inherited from their seller’s brand image. This brand image is the confidence that a seller instills in the buyer in that the objects he sells are worthwhile.

The autho
Jul 24, 2011 DoctorM rated it really liked it
"The $12 Million Stuffed Shark" is an unexpected find--- a witty and thoughtful and well-sourced look at the economics of contemporary art, at the ways in which contemporary art is marketed and how artists, dealers, and auctioneers make their money. This isn't a book about critical theory or art history, and the quality or techniques of art being sold isn't at issue here. This is an economist's work, albeit a work with a great deal of empathy for art and artists...and even for dealers and collec ...more
Jun 01, 2011 katie rated it it was ok
Pretty unimpressed thus far, as the author seems to have kind of a bad 'tude and seems fairly scornful of the art market. Can't exactly blame him - especially as someone with seemingly little/zero professional or personal background in contemporary art sales - but it just leaves such a bad taste!

I often feel as though Thompson is talking down to me; and while I will assume that I, a modern and contemporary arts professional, have a wider understanding of the primary and secondary markets than mu
Cory Huff
Oct 26, 2015 Cory Huff rated it it was amazing
Shelves: how-to-sell-art
A deep look at how art is sold at the highest levels. My biggest take away is that big art sales are often the result of wealthy people taking the advice of art dealers.

Unfortunately many expensive pieces of art are similar to "pump and dump" stocks. A great deal of excitement is generated among a wealthy populace that is largely ignorant of the future prospects of a particular artist.

In addition this book shows how the average artist is locked out of the upper reaches of the art market.
Oct 26, 2009 E rated it it was amazing
Swim with the sharks: making sense of contemporary art

When it comes to contemporary art, many observers simply scratch their heads and mumble, “You call that art?” Intriguing, disturbing, exhilarating and obscene, contemporary art is hard to understand. In fact, when you consider pieces like the titular $12 million stuffed shark by Damien Hirst, it is often downright baffling. If you’re looking for artistic explanations and interpretations, though, Don Thompson doesn’t offer much help. That’s no
Jul 07, 2010 Jan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A well-researched academic overview of the contemporary art market, this book also provides its fair share of entertaining stories, and answers pretty much any conceivable question about the mechanics of the art business, while providing a picture of who the people are who play a prominent part in the art world. While it answers the question "How is the price of contemporary art determined, and why is it occasionally so high?" Short answer: BRANDING, BRANDING, BRANDING. At the very least, Damien ...more
Ryan Chapman
Sep 04, 2008 Ryan Chapman rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
This is a bit dryer than I expected, though still rewarding. The author takes an economist's (i.e. decontextualized) view of the contemporary art scene: the star artists, dealers, gallerists, and collectors, and how they all got that way. As you would expect, money plays a much more important role than taste. (Terence Koh, ahem.) Top-tier artists, once in the the upper echelon, can produce whatever they want - their name and brand is infinitely more important to the market than the quality of th ...more
Jul 22, 2016 Tom rated it it was ok
Read this to lead the See The Story book club at the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The covers the world of contemporary art sales through galleries, dealers, art fairs, and auction houses. It is a foreign world to me, and occasionally I would be lost in a sea of terms of sellers, consignors, collectors, dealers, with price reserves and guarantees, and the lot. There is a lot of jargon in this world and I am so far removed that the detail about this makes my eyes glaze over. There is plenty of fascinatin
Apr 17, 2014 Caroline rated it it was ok
Informative if all you are interested in is the commodification of the object. Otherwise, too many factual errors, notably about the art itself, and reads as somewhat dated. The author comes off as snidely having the same insecurity about the actual art as any of the buyers he describes because he looks but does not see beyond the surface and a sense that numbers never lie. I went into this knowing it was coming from an economist and not an art historian, but there appears to be little more than ...more
Apr 28, 2014 Unvano rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Debra Komar
Jan 25, 2015 Debra Komar rated it liked it
This book suffers from the fact that I had just read two of Sarah Thornton's books ("Seven Days in the Art World" and "33 Artists in 3 Acts"), both of which are far superior to this book. The author here is an economist and his interest in art seems entirely related to the money it makes. Fair enough, but his take on contemporary art falls into the "can anyone believe this crap is art?" and "can you believe what these rich fools are paying for it?" school of thought. There is a cynicism and sens ...more
Charles Eliot
Jan 02, 2016 Charles Eliot rated it really liked it
According to author Don Thompson, the economics of contemporary (post-1970) art are driven by the way five groups - artists, collectors, dealers, auction houses, and museums - interact to drive up the value of their brands. So if you want to understand how a stuffed shark floating in a tank full of formaldehyde can be worth $12 million dollars, read this entertaining and informative book.
Jan 19, 2010 Theresa rated it it was amazing
Fantastic, almost anthropological/ethnographic look at the contemporary art market and how it operates, who drives it, and why it is the way it is. Very much in the style of Peter Watson's look at Sotheby's. For an outsider to be able to slip into this often exclusive world and provide insight for those of us who will never penetrate it, yet remain fascinated by it, is quite the achievement.
Marco Strazzi
Mar 24, 2016 Marco Strazzi rated it it was amazing
Questo documentato libro inchiesta sul mercato dell'arte contemporanea ha il merito di trattare l'argomento dal punto di vista di un economista. Il suo lavoro punta - riuscendoci - a svelare le logiche puramente speculative che si nascondono dietro valutazioni incomprensibili per i più. Due case d'aste e pochi collezionisti, commercianti, curatori di musei fanno il bello e il cattivo tempo, decretando il successo di artisti/illusionisti che sono soprattutto abili venditori di se stessi, con la c ...more
Sep 24, 2012 Gerardo rated it really liked it
Para todo aquel interesado en el mundo del arte, ya sea que sean productores, manejadores, coleccionistas o simplemente aficionados, un libro muy recomendable para entender como se mueven los hilos de este fascinante mundo.
Henry Barry
Jan 09, 2015 Henry Barry rated it liked it
Shelves: misc-nonfiction
As a way to understand the art market, this book did a great job. It was a great way to learn not only how the market works, but to help me realize how important marketing is. Art is the ultimate form of marketing, since you're selling paintings/sculptures at dozens or hundreds or even thousands of times the value of their raw material. A great grounding for someone who wants to answer the question: "why would you pay $50 million for a stupid, ugly painting that a two year old could have made?"

Jan 14, 2015 Mark rated it liked it
I really wanted to like this book, and did learn a bit. However, after about a quarter of the way through I felt like I got the point and I didn't really know what else could be talked about on the subject. My suspicions were confirmed and it seemed that the rest of the book restated a lot of what had already been discussed or implied. If you're going to read it, I'd recommend getting a printed copy so you can flip to the artwork photos. The Kindle copy has the (low res) photos in there too, but ...more
Carlton Davis
Mar 18, 2014 Carlton Davis rated it it was amazing
A terrific book for understanding what has happened to the art world and how it is driven by the market.
The $12 Million Stuffed Shark reveals the power of the auction houses, the trade shows, and the celebrity dealers to create multi-million dollar sales to the super rich, who then control the definition of what is significant culture. The book shows how critics have become irrelevant in this world of money driven art. The book will open your eyes and if you are like me, make you angry at the hi
Andrea Rosen
Aug 28, 2016 Andrea Rosen rated it liked it
Shelves: kindle-owned
I was curious about this book as someone who works in a museum and focuses on contemporary art, and often gets questions from visitors about why contemporary art that they find incomprehensible should be worth so much money, as if there's some inherent aesthetic value in the artwork that they're not getting that should make it so. As the author rightly reveals, the market forces that drive such prices have nothing at all to do with the aesthetic or art historical value of the artwork. That said, ...more
Valery chong
Dec 31, 2015 Valery chong rated it really liked it
This book is a good read for those who are interested in the contemporary art market :)
Here are some of the takeaways from the book:

· Branding and publicity are evident in several aspects of the art market such as a branded artist (Damien Hirst), a renowned collector (Charles Saatchi), a branded gallery (Gagosian Gallery) and branded auction houses (Sotheby’s/Christie’s) causing art prices to skyrocket. Branding is important as people are able to associate the “products” to the brand. It also ad
Jan 17, 2011 Mike rated it really liked it
The ‘$12 Million Stuffed Shark’ is an articulate, thoughtful and revealing look at the economics of contemporary art. I have not come across any other book (or source) that explains the dynamics driving the price of contemporary art so clearly. After reading this book, I now understand why SF MOMA has a blank white painting on their wall, despite the utter lack of artistic merit of such an item.

Each chapter is structured around a theme, mostly the players (people or institutions) or gatekeepers
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“What do you hope to acquire when you bid at a prestigious evening auction at Sotheby’s? A bundle of things: a painting of course, but hopefully also a new dimension to how people see you. As Robert Lacey described it in his book about Sotheby’s, you are bidding for class, for a validation of your taste.” 2 likes
“Conventional wisdom in the art world is that four out of five new contemporary art galleries will fail within five years. Ten percent of galleries established for more than five years also close each year.” 1 likes
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