At the intersection of art and money weird stuff can happen. I recently watched the HBO documentary The Price of Everything. I highly recommend it. You can watch the trailer below.

Although I have written a little bit about art as an investment, I am by no means an expert. The world of art investment has grown so much there is now a trade organization: The Art Fund Association.

Like many people who watched this 60 Minutes piece from 1993 I have always had a feeling modern art was a bit of a Ponzi scheme. What is clear from the documentary is that the contemporary art market is a big business. And like many things today art has become financialized. The implication being that today’s art collectors are as much portfolio manager as connoisseur.

This week a painting, Chop Suey, by Edward Hopper from 1929 sold at auction for $92 million, a record for the artist. Besides the price, one of the notable things is that according to reports the painting was supposed to end up hanging in the Seattle Art Museum. The fears now are that the painting will now sit on some collector’s wall or more depressingly in storage somewhere out of sight. Commerce has a logic all its own.

Lawrence Weschler writing at The Atlantic talks about this very issue in regards to another record setting auction this week, David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures). He concludes:

And, finally, there is the scandal that such an iconic work of international culture will now be disappearing into the domain of a private individual (rather than living in public in a museum, because hardly any museums can afford to bid at such heights) or else into the vaults of some dedicated storage facility near the Frankfurt or Abu Dhabi or Shanghai airport, potentially not to be seen again in the flesh, as it were, for generations.

A cynic might say there is nothing great, money can’t ruin. That is likely going too far. We can’t tell artists to whom to sell. Nor can we tell art collectors what they can do with their paintings. You would like to think there is some middle ground. The Art Institute of Chicago has recently put online 50,000+ high resolution images of the works of art in their collection for free.* Here’s hoping more art owners find a way to let the world enjoy the fruits of the collecting.

*Anyone who used to play the 1976 release of the board game Masterpiece will be familiar with many of these paintings.

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