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Don Thompson’s books on the art market: 6 sad reflections

18 de June de 2021
libros de Don THompson - arte contemporáneo - Don Thompson's books

Long before Don Thompson’s books were published, one of the first antidote experiences I remember with what we commonly call contemporary art was the first time I visited the MACBA (Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona).
I was no more than 15 years old, and I remember that just entering the museum we saw a real, stuffed horse hanging from the ceiling by a rope tied around its neck.

Of course, the effect was disconcerting, not to say that I even got pissed off and thought it was total bullshit. So much so, that I don’t remember anything else from that exhibition except for a red motorbike at the same entrance. A motorbike without any apparent modification by the artist, except that instead of being in the street, it was in a museum.

Since then I think I’ve been cured of my fear of what you can see. More than twenty years have passed since then and I have seen a lot of exhibitions. Some of them good, some of them a joke that didn’t communicate anything to me on any level. Most of them, however, were rather cold, even if technically some of them were well done.

As for the ones that have seemed to me to be a joke, this would be another subject to deal with and one that required a few more antidotes, because I don’t think it wasn’t until I was 22 or 23 that I understood that I wasn’t an idiot for not understanding many of these works of art, but that within the “anything goes”, most of the time the only thing that exists is an intention to do something simply technically groundbreaking, or something that places the creator of the work, thanks to a twistedly superb discourse, above the spectator. But often there is little or nothing to understand, and no aesthetic to appreciate.

Don Thompson’s books and the guts of the art market

This summer I have read the two books by Don Thompson, a Canadian economist specialising in the art market, and the truth is that both have been edifying and succulent for understanding the gears that move the art industry at these levels of museums, rich collectors and millions of dollars in which there is often no direct relationship between what a painting or sculpture is objectively worth (hours of time invested, intrinsic quality of the work, and above all its use value) and what is paid for it.

In fact, Don Thompson’s books explain perfectly well how the rules for valuation have absolutely nothing to do with what I have just said. Rather, they have to do with immense marketing campaigns aimed at a very specific public to whom all the glamour attached to the work is sold, either because of the “prestigious” collection to which it has belonged or because of the extraordinary history that has accompanied it.

Thus, one can even understand that it matters little that many of the current artists or authors mentioned in Don Thompson’s books don’t even make the works themselves. They just sign them. One can also understand that it matters little that they often don’t even know how to draw, sculpt, film….

The important thing is that there is a bidder, a validator, who probably often doesn’t give a damn about the work itself, they are simply going to support it because the work is already on the market and those involved don’t want to lose money. All this is very well explained in Don Thompson’s books.

Así, aparecen otras personas que tienen mucho dinero y que quieren hacerse un hueco en este selecto club de personas que pueden permitirse comprar cuadros de cientos de miles de euros o millones de euros. Y usted puede preguntarse: ¿Por qué? Pues porque para muchos que han hecho dinero, no importa que lo tengan si no pueden demostrar que lo tienen.

Y en estos círculos, muchas veces no importa si lo que vas a comprar te gusta o no. Lo que importa es que perteneció a tal o cual magnate o que el autor lo ha expuesto en tal o cual museo de Nueva York, y eso es lo que puedes explicar a tus invitados cuando lo vean en tu salón para que se caigan de culo con tu nuevo estatus. Si los pintores suelen tener un ego como una catedral y son muy ambiciosos, los coleccionistas no lo son menos. Al menos este tipo de coleccionistas.

Tom Wolfe and “The Painted Word”

Tom Wolfe already warned about this last aspect, the theory that accompanies the work, in his book “The Painted Word”, in which he describes how in the course of the 20th century criticism and theory have been shaping the meaning of works and in many cases even replacing the aesthetic experience or the global experience offered by the work itself.

Sarah Thornton, in her book “Seven Days in the Art World”, also explained what a class in an art university in the USA is like, in which everything revolves around a debate and an idea that a student presents for a work of art (that has yet to be made), and how he argues it before his classmates and his professor before creating it.

Going back to Don Thompson’s books, to this select club and this pyramid structure he describes in his book (the higher up, the fewer people, but the more money). All this wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for the fact that with these rules the art itself is perverted. The most famous works are often not the best. This perversion, which already showed its first leg with Duchamp and then gave us its second with Warhol, and is a game that goes beyond being a transaction between private individuals, but which has entered all public and private institutions many decades ago.

“If we painters have an ego like a cathedral and are very ambitious, collectors are no less ambitious. At least this type of collector”

So perversion is here to stay, and this is where I have a reservation about Don Thompson’s books, because although it’s true that he sticks to the economic aspect of these phenomena, and that also in the first book (“The 12 Million Dollar Shark”) he exposes that the aesthetic quality in art has plummeted, I think that this last phenomenon is worrying and required a greater critique on his part.

10,000 hours to become a professional

After all, any professional is trained with years of experience (they say that 10,000 hours are necessary), and nobody would say that many of these highly sought-after works reflect the materialisation of a long and concentrated experience. In any case, many of these authors have years of experience in speculation and marketing and are true artists in these fields. And this is no joke. Some examples are given in the books.

That is why when Don Thompson asks about influential artists of the 20th century or today, it is naïve to list only 25 or 30 of the ones he has heard the most about from auction houses (basically Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the two that move the most money) and the super galleries (as he calls the ones that move the most money).

It is understood that Don Thompson’s books are basically analysing the economic factor, but in such a case terms like “the most important artists” should not be used, since on an artistic level it is likely that many of these contemporary works of art don’t pass the test that time gives us all, nor are they even considered in consensus opinion to be great works.

But in this purely capitalist market, the hottest is the most expensive. The works of deceased authors, due to the rule of scarcity, are very highly priced (a Monet goes on the market from grapes to pears, he is scarce because his work is already very well placed and rarely moves), and works by highly prized artists try to sell high (in the case of these books, sky-high) and maintain what we know as “cache”.

“According to a study by Don Thompson, 95% of a group of respondents would not hang a contemporary work of art in their home even if it was given to them as a gift”.

But what about everything outside this select club? In Adam Lindemann’s book “Collecting contemporary art” there are images of many of these works from galleries that are at the top of the economic pyramid or that have been sold at auction for tens of millions of euros.

Don Thompson's books
A painting by David Hockney sold in Christie’s. The price: 90’3 millions of dollars

It is evident that these rules that govern this market, this reflection of the capitalism that also ferociously stalks art, leaves out of the structure of money, promotion and marketing, many artists of the highest level that you see in other environments and who have a solid background and a consistent work that transmits much more than these works that are sold at these exorbitant prices.

In any case, this system based solely on material abundance does not satisfy the demand for something more profound for most people. And the proof of this is that, according to Don Thompson’s books, 95% of a group of respondents would not hang any work of contemporary art (works along the lines of those discussed in the book) in their home, even if it were given to them as a gift.

Playing Superpoly in the Art Market

The people the book talks about play at buying and selling paintings as if they were playing monopoly by buying and selling hotels. There are some who decide who makes millions, the same people who force these works and artists to move to the Royal Academy of Arts or the Tate in London, the Moma in New York or the Louvre in Paris.
All this, I repeat, for interests that in the end often have little to do with the intrinsic and objective quality of each work. What matters as a collector, let’s remember, is to earn money for your assets (the works that each collector has) and to be influential in the market.

What artistic references do we leave to the new generations?

One figure he mentions in both books is the approximate annual and official amount of money that moves in the art world. For the edition of the first book, he speaks of 42,000 million euros, and informs us that this is the exact annual figure that the company Apple invoices or invoiced that year. A relative figure, which for me in no way justifies the fact that some of these mediocre works are exhibited in the Louvre as if they were the ninth wonder of the world. And no longer that, that they should be studied by our children because it was decided by someone who didn’t know what to do with his money.

In fact, there is nothing to justify it, because the message we are giving to future generations is that these are the new art forms and that there is a lot to see in them. Or maybe the only thing those children will be told is that the work had been in the Rockefeller collection and that it was sold at auction for $45 million.

“According to these rules, what matters as a collector is not the quality of your works, but their prestige (provenance, history…), their profitability as an asset and the contribution they offer you as an actor that influences the market.”

I studied Art History for a few years and I never understood why Andy Warhol was so much talked about in class. I never saw anything special in his work and I was surprised that at that time there was nothing better than Warhol or Lichtenstein. And the same today. Warhol still strikes me as rather fraudulent and opportunistic. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will surely still study Andy Warhol.

Perhaps they will also study the artist who hung a stuffed horse from the ceiling in MACBA, and the one who makes giant dogs out of balloons, and the one who stuffs sharks and cow heads and puts a cigar in their mouths.

Can’t we really look beyond the money and look for artists with a little more substance and aesthetic experience?

Conclusions from Don Thompson’s books

Those who write so much about these record money buying and selling, perhaps they could look at what is going on in national and international competitions organised by real art lovers. They could look at cultural centres. Art fairs of different kinds and in different countries. They could give the opportunity to bloggers who are dedicated to discovering new talents and who do more field work and help those who need it most and those who deserve it most.

Really, those who only write about auction houses and the millions of euros or the prices of this one or that one, I think they are missing out on a wonderful world that is really evolving and has nothing to do with banknotes, but rather with what makes us human.

Don Thompson’s books about the art market

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

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 prices achieved at auction for works by 131 contemporary artists in 2006 alone, with astonishing new heights reached in 2007? Don Thompson explores the money, lust, and self-aggrandizement of the art world in an attempt to determine what makes a particular work valuable while others are ignored.

This book is the first to look at the economics and the marketing strategies that enable the modern art market to generate such astronomical prices. Drawing on interviews with both past and present executives of auction houses and art dealerships, artists, and the buyers who move the market, Thompson launches the reader on a journey of discovery through the peculiar world of modern art. Surprising, passionate, gossipy, revelatory, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark reveals a great deal that even experienced auction purchasers do not know.

Publisher‏: ‎ Macmillan; Illustrated edición (13 abril 2010)
Language‏: ‎ Inglés
Softcover‏: ‎ 272 páginas
Product weight: ‎ 313 g
Dimensions: ‎ 15.47 x 1.88 x 23.7 cm
Don Thompson’s books

The Supermodel and the Brillo Box

Acquiring contemporary art is about passion and lust, but it is also about branding, about the back story that comes with the art, about the relationship of money and status, and, sometimes, about celebrity. The Supermodel and the Brillo Box follows Don Thompson’s 2008 bestseller The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and offers a further journey of discovery into what the Crash of 2008 did to the art market and the changing methods that the major auction houses and dealerships have implemented since then.

It describes what happened to that market after the economic implosion following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and offers insights and art-world tales from dealers, auction houses, and former executives of each, from New York and London to Abu Dhabi and Beijing.

It begins with the story of a wax, trophy-style, nude upper-body sculpture of supermodel Stephanie Seymour by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which sold for $2.4 million to New York fiber – collector and private dealer Jose Mugrabi, and recounts the story of a wooden Brillo box that sold for $722,500. The Supermodel and the Brillo Box looks at the increasing dominance of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and a few uber dealers; the hundreds of millions of new museums coming up in cities like Dubai, Abu Dabai, and Beijing; the growing importance of the digital art world; and the shrinking role of the mainstream gallery.

Publisher : ‎ MacMillan USA; Reprint edición (17 noviembre 2015)
Language : ‎ Inglés
Softcover‏ : ‎ 288 páginas
Product weight‏ : ‎ 318 g
Dimensions‏ : ‎ 14.3 x 1.96 x 22.63 cm
Don Thompson’s books

The Orange Balloon Dog: Bubbles, Turmoil and Avarice in the Contemporary Art Market

From the author of the internationally bestselling The $12 Million Stuffed Shark comes a fresh and provocative look at the high-end art market and whether it is a bubble about to burst. Within forty-eight hours in the autumn of 2014, buyers in the Sotheby’s and Christie’s New York auction houses spent $1.7 billion on contemporary art. Economist and bestselling author Don Thompson cites this and other fascinating examples to explore the sometimes baffling activities of the high-end contemporary art market, examining what is at play in the exchange of vast amounts of money and what nudges buyers, even on the subconscious level, to imbue a creation with such high commercial value.

Thompson analyses the behaviours of buyers and sellers and delves into the competitions that define and alter the value of art in today’s international market, from New York to London, Singapore to Beijing. Take heed if your fortunes are tied up in stainless steel balloon dogs – Thompson also warns of a looming bust of the contemporary art price balloon. A fascinating explanation, through the field of behavioural economics, for the phenomena that is behind the incredible value of contemporary art.

Publisher‏: ‎ Aurum Press Ltd (11 enero 2018)
Language: ‎ Inglés
Softcover: ‎ 240 páginas
Product weight: ‎ 449 g
Dimensions: ‎ 22.4 x 2.5 x 14.4 cm
Don Thompson’s books

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