Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Books: The Supermodel And The Brillo Box, By Don Thompson

(Drivebycuriosity) - Contemporary art is full of surprises and the market is booming. Skate's Art Market Research reports, that paintings by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon and other top stars sold at auctions worldwide for more than $50 billion dollars (artnews). It seems that the one percent is pouring large parts of their wealth into contemporary art.

The book "The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art" by Don Thompson describes this world (amazon). I learned a lot there, but I also had much fun. The book is written in an amusing style and it is spiced with a lot of facts and funny anectodes.

The author, who calls himself an economist and contemporary art enthusiast, describes precisely the world of art collectors, artists, auction houses and galleries. Thompson sees the universe of contemporary art through the lens of a market economist, "puzzled by the alchemy that causes a Warhol to be valued at $63 million rather than $5 million or even $100,000." In this book he explains the peculiar economy of the art market, illustrated with a lot of sucess stories and flops.

What is driving the market? "Beautiful or not, the central characteristic of twenty-first-century contemporary art is that traditional artists skills of composition and coloration have become secondary to originality, innovation, and shock-hovwever achieved", says Thompson.

The title of the book refers to the lifelike, nude waxwork of former actress and supermodel Stephanie Seymour which you can see on top of this post. Thomson provides not just the amusing background story to "Stephanie", he also describes - with many more examples - how strange this market functions. For instance the artist Félix González-Torres´s created 1992 an installation, called "Untitled" (Portrait of Marcel Brient): 200 pounds (90 kg) of cellophane-wrapped candy, intended to be piled in the corner of a room and consumed by guests. To avoid shipping costs from his usual candy supplier in Chicago the artist purchased from a local store. Estimated at $4 to $6 million, the installation sold for $4.4 million.

I enjoyed Thompson`s well written reports about auctions, for instance of Takashi Murakami`s 1997 "Miss ko2", a 6-foot (1,8 m) tall fiberglas sculpture of a bigbreasted cocktail waitress, a high-heeled secret agent character from a popular Japanese animated cartoon; "hammered down for 46.8 million".

The author delivers amusing and elaborated portraits of mega-star artists like Banksy, Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei, Takashi Murakami and dedicates a whole chapter to Andy Warhol´s factory and their "products". He describes the complex issue of authentication of "Warhols" by the "Andy Warhol Art Authentcation Board", which accepted sometimes work, which is not the work by Andy Warhol, but which is signed, dedicated and dated by him. But Thompson also writes about artists who had rosen like a comet and fell out of favor again.

We also get introduced to famous and important art collectors who have strong influence on the market, the prices and the reputation of certain artists. And he describes the competition between the powerful auction houses Sotheby´s, Christie`s and Phillips and the struggle between the auctioneers on the one hand and Gagosinan and other art dealers (art galleries) on the other hand. Futhermore he explains how auctions and other marketing strategies function and highlights the growing importance of Art Basel, Frieze and other art fairs. In addition Thompson outlines the globalization of the art market, its rapid growth in China and its expansion to Abu Dhabi and Quatar which both influence demand and prices worldwide

"The Supermodel......." is entertaining and inspiring. Recommended for art lovers, broad minded economists and everyone who is interested how the complicated world around is functioning.

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