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

3.78 of 5 stars 3.78  ·  rating details  ·  1,765 ratings  ·  117 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...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 16th 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan (first published 2008)
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Jul 04, 2014 Caroline rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Caroline by: Jan
Shelves: 5-star-books
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...more
May 17, 2011 Sparrow rated it 3 of 5 stars
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
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...more
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...more
Mark B.
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
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...more
"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
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...more
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...more
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
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
Ilya Kavalerov
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...more
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
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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.
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.
Carlton Davis
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...more
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...more
Kane Faucher
The scene is florid and alien to our everyday lives, but economics professor Don Thompson leads us into the midst of this high-toned world where astronomical sums of money are exchanged for art works that may be as perplexing as they are scandalous. What provokes moneyed and high-profile collectors like Charles Saatchi to swoon to the tune of millions in acquiring a plain cabinet with painted pills in the name of art? What would possess someone to purchase a cast of the artist's head made of his...more
Logan Young
If you love art, but contemporary art with all the "elite" artists, collectors, auction houses, dealers, and shitty museums seem incomprehensible, you are not alone. Thompson does a fantastic job of systematically explaining all the facets of this ego drenched game of art collecting and investing. TLDR: It is all about branding. Collectors find shocking (note, talent not required) young artists, quickly buy their work, lend the work to museums so the artist gets associated with the museum brand,...more
Ethan Minsker
If you don’t follow art trends within the market then you will hate this book. It is a lot of numbers about sales, and the only reason it would be thrilling to a reader is if they’re interested in professional art. Working as an art handler on and off over the course of 2011, I had a very limited view of the art market. I understood that it was a game for the rich, and in many ways, fixed. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark may not be 100% factual but it will still open your mind to many realities th...more
Mary Rose
Right I've been sitting here for over an hour trying to decide if I actually liked this book and if I would recommend it, and have come to two conclusions: no, I didn't, but yes, I would. That might seem odd, but trust me, there's some logic behind it.

The thing is, the book is flawed in that the focus is narrow, the humor falls flat, and some parts are unnecessarily sexist, BUT it's super informative. I guess there's no better way to understand a market populated by clueless jerks than by hearin...more
Bill Leach
Good insights into the dynamics of modern art. Main conclusion is that ownership gives status. Also interesting the role of the critics in validating the works.

- The reason that it is bought: it is positional.
- Branding is the process whereby are is given acceptance within the art community
- On Kawara - The Today Series
- Felix Gonzalez-Torres - Fortune Cookie Corner
- Branded dealers - Christies and Southebys
- Branded dealers manage individual artists. They are important in overcoming the uncerta...more
An interesting topic...but told in a very uninteresting manner. The book is written by an economist - therefore, I shouldn't be surprised that it reads about as dry as an Economics textbook.

That being said, the subject matter is both fascinating and disturbing. As an art lover, it pains me to see the contemporary art world depicted as it is in this book. There appears to be a very 'Me, too' aspect to the art scene, which seemed very familiar to me. I couldn't place it for a then it h...more
let me be clear and point out that this is not some gripping novel, but a detailed and fact based essay on the contemporary art world's pricing gauge. And for the approach at such interesting subject material, i highly recommend this book. It is not for those interested in strictly just art, but may be for those who would like to delve into the art world.

this is a foray into the logistics and politics of art. this is the view of a normal, well educated, economics professor who sees the lavish an...more
Alexander Stanuga
An insightful read on the economics particularly of the top end of the the Art World. Written over the past few years, the author highlights the role of Auction Houses, (particularly Christies and Sotheby's) Art Dealers, Collectors, Museums, Artists and the public and their role in the pricing of Art. A must read for any aspiring Artist, it provides a harsh reality check on what REALLY sells and why...
Ben Schuster
Sep 04, 2009 Ben Schuster rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: people who enjoyed Freakanomics
Shelves: non-fiction, wishlist
Make no mistake, the high-end art market is very much a business - art is bought and sold like any other commodity. This book goes deep into the economics of art, and tells you what makes a particular piece worth tens of millions of dollars while others are virtually worthless.

The book discusses many of the major players (artists, dealers, collectors, museums, and auction houses) in great detail. I was fascinated with all of the branding, marketing, investing, and financing that pushes the recen...more
One of the best examples of current art economics & the major players who help drive prices, create "want" and maintain contemporary arts status in an ever changing economy. Though the author does tend to "beat you over the head" with the same terminology (yes, someone seriously paid that much money for a re-do on an original piece by the artist since their initial piece needed more formaldehyde).

Needless to say, I have not looked at pricing or art shows the same since reading this book and...more
An esoteric and jargon-filled book that describes the contemporary art world in a way that bears no impact whatsoever on society overall. There is no necessity to read this book except for that minuscule minority who wish to purchase $50,000+ worth of paintings as an investment; in other words, this book fails to give meaning to anything truly important and is as fluffy, vapid, and superficial as the practice itself. The pretentiousness that oozes from each page is hard to swallow, and his mid-2...more
Patrik Hallberg
As some might know I have a huge interest in contemporary art. This together with collecting contemporary, seven days in the art world and owning art the contemporary art collector's handbook is a great insight into the world of contemporary art. Written by an economist this has a strong connection to the financial world. Don Thompson talks about the branded dealers like Gagosian, the branded collectors like Saatchi, the auction market, art fairs, how you price art, the critics, museums and then...more
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