Lance Charnes's Reviews > The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson
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bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, reviewed
Recommended 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 concentration of income that has occurred all around the world in the past twenty years. In the United Kingdom and the United States, the share of income held by the top 1 percent of the population has doubled since the start of the 1980s. In Italy and France... the income share of the top 1 percent has tripled. In Russia, China and India, the share may be fifty times higher... In 2007, Forbes magazine reported a record 946 billionaires...


These are the people who spend $690,000 for a leather jacket tossed in a gallery corner, secured to the wall by a web of thin silver chains (1992, by Jim Hodges), or, yes, $12 million for a dead shark floating in a vat of formaldehyde (1991, by Damien Hirst). And that's why you keep asking yourself, "All that money... for that?"

A particularly outre 2006 Royal Gallery of Art exhibition inspired Don Thompson, the author, to start his trip down the rabbit hole of the contemporary art market. Thompson isn't an art insider; he's a Canadian economist who has taught at the London School of Economics and the Harvard Business School. This accounts for both the book's subtitle and the care Thompson uses to define most of the artspeak shot through the narrative.

"Branding" is the critical term he uses to explain everything. There are branded artists (Warhol, Koons, Hirst, Basquiat, Bacon); branded museums (MoMA, the Guggenheim, both Tates, the Louvre); branded dealers (Gagosian, White Cube, David Zwirner, Marian Goodman); branded auction houses (Christie's, Sotheby's); and branded collectors (Saatchi, Pinault, Broad). When you put any two or three of these together, wallets (and brains) explode. Artists become branded by being represented by a branded dealer, or being bought by a branded collector. A branded collector can maximize his return by selling a branded artist's work through a branded auction house (at the evening auction, not the more plebian afternoon one), preferably to a branded museum or another branded collector. Prices keep going up (even if they don't -- nobody admits that) because the players in this game never run out of money. And so it goes.

Keep in mind that none of this has anything to do with you or me. Thompson makes the point more than once: that pretty picture you buy in your Main Street gallery or from the artist's studio during the annual Art Walk will never sell for more than it does at the moment you buy it, no matter how long you hold onto it. Make sure it looks good on your wall.

Despite being both an academic and an economist, Thompson writes clearly, often engagingly, and most important, understandably. He examines the underpinnings of each piece of this self-reinforcing money mill in turn, discussing not only how they work but also why, and how it all goes together. Outside of some artist name-dropping, you likely won't get lost even if your only exposure to contemporary art is Warhol's soup cans.

Probably because he isn't an art insider and was discovering all this stuff while he was researching this book, Thompson includes an unusual (for these kind of books) amount of detail about the everyday workings of dealers, auctions, art fairs, and the like. We learn about chandelier bids, waiting lists, "buying with your ears," private treaty sales and "Very Ordinary People" (the other 99.9%), often while these concepts are in narrative play. Given what I write, I found this the most useful aspect of this book; you may too, especially if you've seen one too many art-auction scenes in movies and wondered if it really goes down that way.

If you read my last art-book review, you may be asking, "Isn't this just a rehash of Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century?" Yes, they do cover a lot of the same territory. However, Georgina Adam came at the subject from an insider's perspective and wasn't nearly as interested in the nuts-and-bolts as she was about broad trends. Shark and Big Bucks are companion pieces, not duplicates.

The other difference between the two books: Shark is almost ten years old, while Big Bucks is only three. Thompson's data ended just as the 2007-8 crash began. This renders most of his discussion about absolute prices (rather than trends) moot; nearly all the records he reports have been broken by now, and a few of the power players have changed. (Thompson visited the post-crash art world in 2014's The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art .) This, as well as a spotty index and not nearly enough pictures, shaved off enough of the fifth star to make me call it four stars and change.

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is an accessible, readable explanation of how the stratospheric end of the art market works. It's a better entry point than Adam's Big Bucks; you'll get more ground-level details along with the lurid bits, at the cost of looking at the world as it was a few years ago. By the end, you'll know why you should buy a contemporary female nude with lots of red, and why it doesn't matter whether you actually like (or understand) the piece you've spent your retirement fund on. You'll also learn that "more money than sense" isn't just a cliché.
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Reading Progress

July 16, 2016 – Shelved
July 2, 2017 – Started Reading
July 14, 2017 – Finished Reading

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