In May, 2008, contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi’s “Mask Series 1996 No.6” sold for U.S$9.07 million at the Christie’s Hong Kong art auction. A month earlier, another contemporary Chinese artist, Zhang Xiaogang, sold his “Bloodline: Big Family No.3” for U.S.$6.06 million at the Sotheby’s Hong Kong art auction. In case you are wondering, Fanzhi was born in 1964. Xiaogang is a little older. He was born in 1958.
Could anyone have predicted these prices? Apparently not even the auction catalogues predicted such prices judging by their pre-sale estimates. On a slightly more personal note, I recently walked into a not-too-snooty art gallery. The gallery director was forthcoming, and genuinely believed in his artists but then – “You should get this artist before his prices go up” – pops out of his mouth. Nothing bothers me more than a gallery director telling me that I should buy NOW before the somewhat affordable piece I’m looking at appreciates by 20% or more.
First and foremost, what is it about my clothes and appearance that makes gallery director think: Look lady, buy now because chances are you’ll never be able to afford more than what the artist is currently valued at!
Second, what guarantees I won’t contact the artist directly and hound him until he has a nervous break-down and sells me his piece for half-price?
Third, even if the snowball does survive hell and the work in question does demand a million dollars plus while I’m still alive and faculty-intact– so what? Do I allow myself to get pressure-pushed into buying a piece on the sole criteria that there’s a molecular off-chance it will exceed its current value by an astronomical jump?
All of which leads to the ever-enigmatic question: What is art worth?
I guess for some things the answer is fairly straightforward. Take real estate, for example, and its “three golden rules” – location, location, location. The value of art, however, is not so straightforward. It is too subjective, too volatile, and too dependent on the pricing policy of the gallery and something Adam Smith called “the Invisible Hand” (Don Thompson elaborates on this point in his book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark). Assuming that talent is a material part of this equation, then talent should be guarantee enough. Sure, but in the unpredictable world of creativity what does talent mean and what does talent guarantee?
I remember watching Wicked on Broadway and thinking how absolutely brilliant every actor’s performance was. Now ponder this: For every actor on stage, there are at least a few thousand (and I’m being conservative) equally talented, equally brilliant actors who are barely making ends meet by waiting on tables. Same thing for artists – it’s enough to make you push your artistically-inclined kid into medicine or law.
Ultimately, how much a work will be worth is unpredictable. So perhaps the question to ask when considering a work of art is this: Will I still love it and will it still speak to me if it is only worth the value of paint and canvas?