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

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  4,656 ratings  ·  230 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 pric
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 16th 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan (first published July 1st 2008)
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Average rating 3.86  · 
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May 11, 2014 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. His did thousands of pictures of dates - literally pictures of date
Meredith Holley
Jan 17, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: artists in for a wake-up call
Shelves: non-fiction, reviewed, law
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 14, 2014 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 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
May 07, 2019 rated it liked it
I can allocate only 3 stars to this book. At best.
It's a curious book, somewhat informative, yet quite sketchy and superficial at most of the times.

It's not art, not science, it's marketing that rules the world, and the world of art is no exception. Good marketing, smart publicity and an artist has a good chance of getting on top of the wave.

All the inside, the "behind the closed doors" stuff.... well, i personally have little interest in it.
i either like something or not... I do not care wheth
Lance Charnes
Jul 16, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: readers looking for a real-life "Alice in Wonderland"
The most important aspect of the contemporary art market (roughly, art created since 1960 or so) is revealed in the penultimate chapter of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. It's worth an extended quote, because it helps everything else make some weird kind of sense.

The value of art often has more to do with artist, dealer, or auction-house branding, and with collector ego, than it does with art... the boom in trophy art prices reflects both the buoyancy of the financial markets and the concentratio
Apr 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
The middle 50% or so is way too in-depth about the auction process itself rather than the implications that auctions and the auction process have on the art world. Not to mention all the auction talk gets pretty repetitive. I also find it funny (kind of hard to knock the book on this, just wish it were revised or something) how much Thompson talks about the resilience of the market and compares it to stocks and mentions it only took slight hits from the 1990 recession and the dot com bubble but ...more
Mark B.
Jan 02, 2010 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
Noah Goats
Jul 09, 2018 rated it really liked it
A lot of modern art seems like a scam to me. People pay huge sums for a Damien Hirst or an Andy Warhol, but, frankly, much of their art is boring, ugly, and insulting to both intelligence and common sense. Damien Hirst’s least ugly works, like his spot and spin paintings, could be done by anyone and, in fact, some are made by other people under his direction without Hirst adding anything but a signature. How is selling a Hirst painting of colorful spots for $300,000 (that Hirst didn’t even paint ...more
Darya Conmigo
Reads like a good detective story. Loved it.
Nour Oueidat
Jan 31, 2018 rated it liked it
I've started reading this book with little information about contemporary art. I only know about the ridiculous installations that cost a fortune and Andy Warhol's easy-to-imitate silkscreens.
This book was a great insight to everything you need to know about contemporary art, not just the economical aspect of it. It goes through major artists, major auction houses, major collectors, and major art installations.
Although its a slow read, the information it exposes about the art world is interest
Maciej Sawicki
Oct 11, 2019 rated it really liked it

The artworld is very much like a game of baseball. It can be predictable, but at the same time, there are times where it can change quickly and extremely. I agree with the good reads reviewer Meredith who talked about how this book gave several examples of how people profit for the art world. Meredith talked about how some art dealers will buy artwork for $1000. The artist was happy because they made $1000 from artwork, but then the dealer will use their connections to resell the artwork at a wo
Bridget Kowalczyk
Oct 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: humanities
Many other readers and I went into this book not knowing the ins-and-outs of art economics. After reading this though, we all now have a much clearer understanding of how the art economy really works. Other readers have commented that the way selling art is, is kind of a cross between the fashion business, and real estate. I agree with this statement because that’s how I also interpreted the writing. Different works of art are displayed and sold to those willing to bid enough, and it seems very ...more
David Cattarin
Jun 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is by no means an easy read. The author packs in a lot of information, including economics and a bit of art criticism. Nonetheless, the topic is fascinating. Some parts are obvious: when the ultra rich compete for rare commodities, then the "value" goes up. The obvious, however, is balanced with a behind-the-scenes look at how auction houses, dealers, and art fairs work. It certainly gave me a new appreciation of why museums dislike talking about cost and value when talking about art--the a ...more
Apr 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Contemporary art in auction houses is a scam.
Sep 24, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
This was very interesting, and kind of revolting too. Art should not be a product to be traded and speculated about, and yet it has become just that.
Jan 21, 2016 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 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 05, 2011 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
May 11, 2009 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
Apr 17, 2014 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
Oct 26, 2009 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 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
Aug 16, 2008 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
Cory Huff
Oct 26, 2015 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.
Jan 19, 2010 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.
Jul 07, 2012 rated it it was ok
Early on in this book I spotted one or two inaccuracies, which really put me off the whole thing. Thompson might know his economics, but he doesn't really know his art and he appears to present the iniquities of the art market with no sense of disopprobrium or satire. I will say this book is highly readable, but nothing really sunk in. Ultimately it was a bit depressing.
Charles Eliot
Jan 02, 2016 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.
Sophie Bucci
Apr 07, 2020 rated it really liked it
liked this in a similar way to how i liked '7 days in the art world' - clearly for art world outsiders and a bit sensationalistic, but an interesting mix of informative and thrilling, given the auction content, pacing of the writing, and that reading about super rich people is always kind of like reality tv. did fully convince me that art buyers follow the money/art, auction houses run the market and taste-making, increasingly crowding out dealers; critics have never been significant (a contrast ...more
Fern F
Feb 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
4.5 Stars

A little out of date, but this book is a fascinating introduction to the bonkers world of the art business: how dealers make money, how auction houses have come to take control of a huge part of the art world, how rich people spend billions on art and work hard to make sure that the art they bought goes up in value over the years.

Thompson occasionally ventures into discussions of what is art and the difference between what you like and what would make you money 10 years down the line,
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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
“Some private treaty activity is initiated by dealers, who are forced to partner with auction houses to gain access to their client lists. Only Christie’s can identify the underbidders at most recent Francis Bacon auctions—and in a thin market, a seller needs access to this information.” 1 likes
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