BOOKSHELF : The $12 Million Stuffed Shark – The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses


By: Don Thompson
Publisher: Aurum
RRP: $70.00
Reviewer: Vicki Jayne

Subtitled The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses, Thompson’s book traverses the arcane world of contemporary art dealing to discover why any investor in their right mind would fork out over US$12 million for mounted but decaying dead fish that weighs over two tonnes.
Damien Hirst’s infamous stuffed shark – entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living – is not exactly the sort of art that could be displayed on boardroom wall. And, given its ‘creator’ has since produced couple of similar concept pieces, it doesn’t even seem to merit rarity value.
The exploration of why it commanded such high value takes the reader on journey through branded auctions like Christie’s or Sotheby’s, identifying the superstar dealers as well as the collectors who help create artistic feeding frenzies. There’s also an excursion to the ‘final frontier’ of branded art fairs, where art blends with fashion in shopping mall environment in which would-be collectors feel free to buy more impulsively.
In world where questions of ‘quality’ evoke much debate but little certainty, the trick seems to be in creating, then cornering the brands that build the best gain in the shortest possible time.
What makes the shark saga so interesting is that the parties involved – Hirst (artist), Saatchi (owner), Larry Gagosian (dealer), Tate (gallery), Serota (possible purchaser), and Cohen (end purchaser) – represented, says Thompson “more art-world branding than is almost ever found in one place”. It also raised quite few questions around the integrity of ‘art’ when the decayed original is substituted by fresher carcass and both pieces are largely assembled by technicians anyway.
Thompson, an economist and business professor who teaches at Harvard and the London Business School, shows how those who set the market pace can make lot of money from their trade in contemporary art. He shows how the savvy, well-sponsored artists can command huge prices during their lifetimes and how money influences artistic appreciation. What, he asks, is being celebrated when sustained applause greets the culmination of bidding war that sees Mark Rothko painting sold for record US$72.8 million.
It’s weird and fascinating world that makes investment in hardy perennials like the property market – even in the light of leaking buildings and finance company collapses – look like cakewalk.
As to the fate of the shark – its refurbished manifestation can be checked out at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

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