Why Stuffed Sharks Cost So Damn Much

The driving forces behind the "curious economics of contemporary art"

The poet Wallace Stevens, wealthy from his position as vice president of The Hartford Accident and Indemnity insurance company, once remarked that there was a huge difference between appreciating art and owning it.

But Don Thompson, a business professor at Toronto's York University and author of the insightful and compulsively readable The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, argues that the two activities are increasingly indistinguishable. Thompson spent a year touring auction houses, talking with dealers and even hanging out with artists, who emerge as altogether less interesting than the buyers and sellers around them.

Consider the case of British advertising legend Charles Saatchi, one of the central figures in Thompson's study of "the curious economics of contemporary art." Married to voluptuous TV cook Nigella Lawson, Saatchi is "the prototype of the modern branded collector," a tastemaker who doesn't just collect art but creates whole markets in the stuff, no matter how bizarre, sensationalistic or banal it might seem on first (or second, or third) blush. He adds value simply by his association with or interest in an artist.

Back in 1991, Saatchi commissioned "The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living"—a 15-foot tiger shark suspended in a giant glass tank—from Damien Hirst, whose reputation he had largely created via early patronage. Saatchi reportedly had fallen in love with Hirst's work after seeing "A Thousand Years," an installation featuring a rotting cow's head, flies and a bug zapper.

By 2005, the embalmed shark had turned green and lost a fin, but still sold for $12 million, the second-highest price ever paid at the time for a work by a living artist (a couple of years later, Hirst would set the record, surpassing Jasper Johns). The buyer was Steve Cohen, an investment whiz who earns $500 million a year and is, Thompson notes dryly, "considered a genius."

"Who pays $12 million for a decaying shark?" Thompson asks. The short answer is insecure rich people who want "prove to the rest of the world that they really are rich." And that they are cosmopolitan with good taste: "A great many people can afford a small yacht," Thompson says. "But art distinguishes you."

The best thing about Thompson's book is that it demystifies the art world by walking through its arcane financial customs and by insisting on an economist's appreciation for the subjective theory of value. He recognizes that value is dependent on context. Objects themselves have no intrinsic worth; what we're willing to pay at any given time is a result of the stories we tell ourselves.

Saatchi and many of the artists he promotes are particularly good about telling stories and creating myths about what is hot, compelling, subversive, or visionary. As Saatchi has said, "There are no rules about investment. Sharks can be good. Artist's dung can be good. Oil on canvas can be good."

And, of course, they can all be very bad, both as art and investments. Thompson notes that art is in fact a terrible investment. Buy art, he counsels, "If you love it and want to live with it, but not in the hope it will appreciate in value."

That's sound advice, as Wallace Stevens understood. In one of his most famous poems, he celebrated the fleeting, ephemeral nature of life itself, declaring "the only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream." And embalmed sharks.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of reason.tv and Reason Online. A version of this review ran in the August 31, 2008 edition of The New York Post.

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  • db||

    Clearly the solution to cash burning a whole in your pocket is to purchase a stuffed wale.

  • Wise Guy||

    "Human Effluvia"!
    Hey, that would make a great name for a...

  • texas_libertarian||

    Contemporary art is such bullshit. I can take a crap on the floor give it some fucked up name that has nothing to do with anything and call myself an artist. It's not art if my three-year-old brother does it all the time.

  • Junter Klops||

    Art has always been a status symbol to differentiate the rich from the poor. Nowadays everyone can afford artwork that is actually pleasant looking, so the rich have to turn to the absurd to get their point across. And the more money and power they have, the more repulsive the artwork they commission.


    It has previously been suggested that life is God's finest artwork. I hereby suggest that theory be redacted.

  • ||

    Art has always been a status symbol to differentiate the rich from the poor.

    Exactly. Like that iPhone app that was a grand for a little red light, the point is not "this is great", the point is "this is unbelievably expensive for something that is only looked at, and I can afford it".

  • classwarrior||

    An example perhaps of why money is sometimes more productive in public hands rather than private.

  • ||

    An example perhaps of why money is sometimes more productive in public hands rather than private.

    O Rly? Please explain why.

  • Colin||

    Yes, why should a guy who makes $500M a year have to voluntarily shell out his cash for this stuff? We could have a national endowment that takes money from the public a large. Maybe we could install rotting sharks in fast-food restaurants to deter people from eating there. Art for the People.

  • ||

    The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

    Damn, that poem just gets stuck in your head.

  • Famous Mortimer||

    "Contemporary art is such bullshit. I can take a crap on the floor give it some fucked up name that has nothing to do with anything and call myself an artist. It's not art if my three-year-old brother does it all the time."

    Which is why you clearly you don't understand art.

    Anything can be art, and what a person wants to pay for it is a value judgment that is entirely up to them.

  • Famous Mortimer||

    "Contemporary art is such bullshit. I can take a crap on the floor give it some fucked up name that has nothing to do with anything and call myself an artist. It's not art if my three-year-old brother does it all the time."

    Which is why you clearly don't understand art.

    Anything can be art, and what a person wants to pay for it is a value judgment that is entirely up to them.

    P.S. Kids, always use the preview button.

  • LarryA||

    An example perhaps of why money is sometimes more productive in public hands rather than private.

    Right. Go look at the "art" the government purchases, or the NEA funds.

    Which is why you clearly don't understand art. Anything can be art, and what a person wants to pay for it is a value judgment that is entirely up to them.

    This would be a much more valid position if so many of the aahrtsts espousing it didn't dismiss, for instance, Norman Rockwell as "merely an illustrator."

    The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.

    Not so.

  • ||

    This guy is the one true emperor.

  • Famous Mortimer||

    "This would be a much more valid position if so many of the aahrtsts espousing it didn't dismiss, for instance, Norman Rockwell as "merely an illustrator."

    That's a blatant appeal to authority.

    What a select group of individuals define as "art" is entirely up to them. However, it doesn't make their position anything more than an opinion. It's art, not science.

    Now, certainly, academics might use classifications in order to discuss the context of certain types of art, yet art can be found in anything, depending on the observer.

    There are people who collect fine art, folk art, and pop art. It's all art.

    The presentation, and the context of an idea is just as much about art as the physical result.

    Andy Warhol demonstrated that, while simultaneously clowning the fine art establishment.

  • ||

    texas_libertarian sez:

    Contemporary art is such bullshit. I can take a crap on the floor give it some fucked up name that has nothing to do with anything and call myself an artist. It's not art if my three-year-old brother does it all the time.

    Wow, your three year old brother shits on the floor...and then names it?? All the time? Perhaps an "I can go Potty All by Myself" book for Christmas? And, are the names at least creative?

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