Neoclassical economists don’t have a lot to say about the value of art. Basically, they start from the proposition that a work of art, such as Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” is often considered to have two different values: an aesthetic or cultural value (its cultural worth or significance) and a price or exchange-value (the amount of money a work of art fetches on the market). They then demonstrate that, within free markets, individual choices ensure that the price of art generally captures or represents all of the various dimensions of value attributable to the work of art, rendering the need for a separate concept of aesthetic or cultural value redundant. Therefore, on their view, Picasso’s painting is “worth” the record auction price of $179.37 million.*
But the Wall Street Journal (gated) observes that yesterday’s sale of other paintings—including Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)”—reveals something else:
Some paintings act like object lessons in tracking the global migration of wealth, bouncing from one owner to the next in timely turns. Such was the case Tuesday when Sotheby’s sold a $46.5 million Mark Rothko abstract that previously belonged to U.S. banker Paul Mellon and later to French luxury executive François Pinault.
All night long, Sotheby’s sale demonstrated the power that the younger, international set is wielding over the art market, pushing up brand-name artists and newcomers alike. Bidders from more than 40 countries raised their paddles at some point during Sotheby’s $379.7 million sale of contemporary art, and the house said bidding proved particularly strong from collectors in Asia and across Latin America.
Clearly, the ever-expanding bubble in high-end art is predicated on the extraordinary amount of surplus that is being captured by a tiny number of individuals at the very top of the world’s distribution of income and their willingness to spend a portion of it on “vanity capital.”
As Neil Irwin explains,
Let’s assume, for a minute, that no one would spend more than 1 percent of his total net worth on a single painting. By that reckoning, the buyer of Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O)” would need to have at least $17.9 billion in total wealth. That would imply, based on the Forbes Billionaires list, that there are exactly 50 plausible buyers of the painting worldwide.
This is meant to be illustrative, not literal. Some people are willing to spend more than 1 percent of their wealth on a painting; the casino magnate Steve Wynn told Bloomberg he bid $125 million on the Picasso this week, which amounts to 3.7 percent of his estimated net worth. The Forbes list may also have inaccuracies or be missing ultra-wealthy families that have succeeded in keeping their holdings secret.
But this crude metric does show how much the pool of potential mega-wealthy art buyers has increased since, for example, the last time this particular Picasso was auctioned, in 1997.
After adjusting for inflation and using our 1 percent of net worth premise, a person would have needed $12.3 billion of wealth in 1997 dollars to afford the painting. Look to the Forbes list for that year, and only a dozen families worldwide cleared that bar.
In other words, the number of people who, by this metric, could easily afford to pay $179 million for a Picasso has increased more than fourfold since the painting was last on the market. That helps explain the actual price the painting sold for in 1997: a mere $31.9 million, which in inflation-adjusted terms is $46.7 million. There were, quite simply, fewer people in the stratosphere of wealth who could bid against one another to get the price up to its 2015 level.
More people with more money bidding on a more or less fixed supply of something can only drive the price upward. On Monday, the auction was for fine art. But the same dynamic applies for prime real estate in central London or overlooking Central Park, or for bottles of 1982 Bordeaux.
The pool of “potential mega-wealthy art buyers” has indeed expanded but it’s still a infinitesimal fraction of the world’s population. Still, it’s enough to set record prices in recent art auctions, which (along with real-estate and fine-wine markets) thereby serves as a window on the grotesque levels of economic inequality we are witnessing in the world today.
But there’s another aspect of the Wall Street Journal story (and of many other articles I’ve read about recent art auctions) that deserves attention: the worry that the highly unequal distribution of income and wealth is migrating out of the West—to the East (especially China) and the Global South (particularly Latin America). It’s a worry that the cultural patrimony of the West is being exported (or, if you prefer, re-exported, after centuries of plunder of the empire’s hinterland) as the surplus being generated within the world economy is increasingly being captured by individuals outside the West.
I wonder, then, if this worry (about the migration of wealth and art) will ultimately be reflected in Western neoclassical economists’ long-held celebration of free markets—and if will there be a new round of preoccupation about the differences between market and aesthetic values, as the demands of new buyers from outside the West succeed in determining ever-higher prices for the art (and utilizing the surplus) the West has long claimed as its own.
*For other mainstream economists, if art’s cultural value is not adequately represented by its exchange-value (because, for example, art has “positive externalities,” that is, benefits to society beyond what is captured in the market price), then there is room for public subvention of art and of artists. And that ends up determining the limits of debate within mainstream economics: the neoclassical view of free private art markets (when the two values are the same) versus the alternative view in favor of public support for the arts (if and when they are not).