The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

by: Don Thompson (0)

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 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.

The Reviews

Brilliant piece uncovering the mystery of why we observe so-called works of art clearly void of artistic talent sell for exorbitant amounts of money. I like to consider myself an amateur art connoisseur, but maybe I am unworthy of such a title since I fail to comprehend how contemporary works can fetch more than a medieval masterpiece at auction. The author of this book has provided me much clarity on the absurdity of art values. His writing style is entertaining, intriguing, and practical.I plan on acquiring his more recent works (2 books as of this review date), which appear to expound on this subject.

I am not in any way involved in Art nor do I own any art and enjoyed this book tremendously. Being in real estate and finance made this book ever more compelling to read. There are a lot of parallels in the psychology and economics of trading modern art, real estate and any other alternative asset which makes this book a great way to force lateral thinking between two, arguably, unrelated sectors. I couldn't recommend this book more to anyone involved in finance or the trading of securities and assets. I wish this author wrote about other industries as the book details just about every revenue stream, challenge and opportunity in the dealer, auction house market. Anyhow, do read this book. It is quite good.

I have recently read a number of books on art collecting and more specifically, contemporary art collecting. The $12 Million Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, as compared to other books on this subject, provides a 360 degree view of the contemporary art market. The book provides a view of the market from the perspective of the collector, dealer and auction house and really gives the reader a sense of how the market operates and the pros and cons of this unique manner in which art is bought and sold. I enjoyed this book so much that I decided to purchase Mr. Thompson’s more recent book on the same topic - The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art.

Great way to get up to speed on the insane and intriguing contemporary art market. Probably the most interesting conclusion I draw is based on my new understanding of why Stephen A Cohen is such a good and successful art collector / investor. When one achieves a high status in the contemporary art world, as has Stephen A Cohen, he gets 1) first looks at hot artists at discounted prices and 2) has the ability to turn a no-name artist into something more by simply buying his/her work. Thus, he easily gets the best deals and investment opportunities within the Contemporary art world. I liken this to insider trading in the world of stock trading, but in the contemporary art market, unlike the stock market, insider trading is legal - so no wonder he like the contemporary art market so much. To the victor go the spoils!

When you read this book, you will feel like you are reading a thrilling novel. The author sweeps you along, divulging such new and inconceivable information, that you will constantly want to keep going. I learned more from this book than I ever learned about the art world as an art student. It is true, though, that this author has only focused on a part of the art world, and there are many successful artists working in areas uncovered by the book. I think anyone who reads this book, artist or not, would find it quite enjoyable despite a few drawbacks.It is poorly edited. Sometimes there are missing words or even misspellings. There are too many chapters about auctions, which slows the pace in the middle. The ending gets interesting again, but the author seems to have lost his vision. He makes certain cases, and then gives us example after example in which he proves himself wrong. That was a little confusing.I still give the book five stars because I can't tell you how much I learned. Yes, the book isn't perfect, but I don't remember liking a non fiction book this much in a long time!

Ever wonder if the world of high ticket contemporary art is as strange as it seems? It is.This economist based look at the business is interesting. And, being friends with many superb artists, frustrating as it makes clear that big ticket sales have nothing to do with quality and depend on people with too much kidney strutting for each other.A must read if you want to check out that strangeness.

This book is an entire art education between covers.There are several single paragraphs in this book that justify the price each on their own.If you are an artist, especially one without millions in the bank, you need to read this book in order to understand how and where to steer your career.If you are a would-be art collector, read this book before you find yourself with a garage full of worthless outfits for emperors you foolishly paid thousands or even millions for.If you are a big time art dealer, high end "contemporary" artist, or any of the big-monied frauds involved in this worldwide art fraud circus; you have been outed. You don't need to buy this book. It only contains all the things you already know and do, and hoped no one would ever find out.Buy this book!

Confused about modern art? Intimidated by the beautiful young women sitting at the front desks of the all-white contemporary art galleries from New York to London?Don Thompson, who teaches marketing and economics in Toronto, London and Boston offers reassurance based on a year of research into the art market. This is an excellent combination of smart reporting with questions informed by a background in business and economics. Tired of trying to reach through long-winded tomes on the aesthetics of contemporary art? Here's a welcome and information respite.You can't understand, or plain can't stand, most of what you see? He finds that experts in the field of contemporary art think 85 percent of it is crap - they just argue over which 85 percent.Whew. I was wondering if I was alone in skipping gallery after gallery in the big art warehouses in New York's Chelsea. After a quick glance through the doors of most, I move on without ever entering.Four out of five contemporary art galleries close within five years, and 10 percent of more established galleries also go out of business. Only one artist out of 200 will ever get their work into the auctions at Christie's or Sotheby's. Thompson says London and New York each have 40,000 artists. Of those, 25 are superstars and about 300 are making a decent living. Whew...how do art schools ever persuade student to spend a couple of years and pay tuition to do it?That puts a lot of the art world in perspective.Still, the market is active. More than 100 museums have opened in the last 25 years, and each will want to acquire at least 2,000 works of art. Then again, with 40,000 artists in just two art capitals (And where is Paris in this equation? Good question. No mention of the Chinese villages which churn out copies or the growing leagues of accomplished Chinese painters - maybe in the sequel.)Contemporary art is, or was, a fast-growing market. In one auction, Thompson notes, a Francis Bacon painting at £5.5 million would have paid for two Monets, one Pissarro and a Cezanne auctioned the night before.Meanwhile, in an effort to beat the two top houses, Phillips de Pury has focused on contemporary art and sold more 21st century art that the other two houses combined.Think these financiers who buy art are so smart? Thompson says that aJeff Koons piece which brought $4 million at Sotheby's in November 2006 could have been picked up from a dealer a few blocks away for $2.25 million.Does art make sense as an investment? No. "Eighty percent of the art bought from local dealers and local art fairs will never resell for as much as the original purchase price.""In the overwhelming majors of cases, art is neither a good investment nor an efficient investment vehicle."Fewer than half the modern and contemporary artists in a Christie's or Sotheby's auction catalogue 25 years ago are still offered at any major auction, says Thompson.While I can't claim comprehensive knowledge of art books published in the last year, I would hazard a guess that this is one of the clearer explanations of what goes on in the world of studios, galleries and museums.

Excellent examination of the business of art. Who decides whether something is art? The artist? The critic? The museum curator? The collector? The auction house? The gallery? Or maybe they're all operating in concert, consciously or not. This is a look behind the scenes at the high-stakes art world. It's enlightening, frequently very funny, and sometimes even a bit frightening..

Amazing book. Especially great for a college student looking to break into the auction/dealer world of art like me!

What a great book about the prices and objects being sold in the contemporary art world. The author is an economist and comes at it from a different angle but it is extremely readable.Any one interested in contemporary art and wondering at the huge prices being paid would benefit from this book. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on the inner workings of the great auction houses. It is not about the value of the art but the perceived value of owning something with bragging rights.

Chatty, easy-to-read view of the who's who and what's what of today's Western contemporary art scene. I wish Mr Thompson would no one on the Chinese landscape.

The author, an economist, explores the world of contemporary artists, dealers, and auctions. I have to commend him for an enjoyable and flowing book that is factual and fair. It would be too easy to laugh at the quirks of various art-world characters. I've certainly read many mocking write-ups elsewhere. I appreciate that the author didn't do this. He wrote a compelling and enlightening book while being respectful to the people involved. I adored the book.

Now I understand why--why the washing machine with dirty clothes strewn about was such a draw at the Art Institute of Chicago. I really enjoyed learning more about the economics of contemporary art.

The book arrived on time with no flaws. As for the content of the book, it is spectacular. In some ways, it vindicates everything you have ever felt going into an art gallery or major show. Sadly, if you love art, it might also depress you to learn of what the industry has become. Overall, the book is well-written and thought-provoking. This road map of modern day art economics will make artists cringe, businessmen applaud the audacity of some of the major characters, and the rest of us will never see a gallery the same way again.

Marc Rothko's White Center: $72.84 million.Willem de Kooning's Woman III: 137.5 billion.Jackson Pollock's No.5, 1948: $140 billion.It's almost inevitable to bring up the price tags when talking about contemporary art, but who sets the numbers? Moreover, does the artistic value determine the price, or is it the other way around? While there might be no clear answer, one thing we can be sure of is that a significant proportion of the price is influenced by branding, which sometimes even replaces its artistic value.This book's purpose is not to criticize contemporary art itself, nor does it try to accuse the elitist art market (well, maybe a little). What it does is to explain basic but often unanswered questions: why the art world has become so exclusive; why artworks need price tags; who decides on those numbers; how an emerging artist can become a branded one, and etc.

Of several good books about the puzzling price wars in contemporary art, this is the best and most readable. Very entertaining. Who would pay a hundred million dollars for an abstract painting that looks like a room painter's drop cloth? Read this and find out who, and why.

Thompson provides a thorough and absorbing walkthrough of the dynamics that drive the art world. His detailed explanations capture the economic and social aspects that have led to the renown of today's highly branded pieces, allowing an insider's look at a highly opaque environment. Simultaneously, while not a main subject of the work, it is his vivid walkthrough of the current art market that encourages the reader to question the role of art, and in the process, to forge a more informed view.

This is a very well documented encapsulation of all that is horrifyingly wrong with the art market today, esp in the USA and London where quality and talent is totally subjugated to and trumped by sensation, trendiness and outrage. No one is taught craft anymore with the result that the discerning eye in art has ceased to exist. Where is Robert Hughes when we need him? Don Thompson is doing a great job filling his shoes. The emperors are starkers, and the Gagosians of the world are, to my mind, making a fortune off of it. Caveat emptor !!!!

The explosion of contemporary art prices over this last decade seemed to be an aberration, but now I understand that there are forces at work far beyond the ebb and flow of economic tides. This books goes a long way to explaining how values are created through collusion among the cognoscenti of culture. The taste makers, gallery owners, auctioneers and collectors, participate in a systematic process to create desire in very powerful, sophisticated, wealthy people while compelling them to abandon all their instincts and aesthetic sensitivities and spend billions of dollars on works of art that are inscrutable, often unattractive, and often not even personally handled by the artist at all.Want to know how? Read this book and you will find out.Availability of eagerly sought contemporary works is so restricted and controlled that billionaires stampede in unison in order to purchase the same works, driving values through the stratosphere. Billionaires follow billionaires since who else can they trust to tell them what to do with their vast fortunes? Billionaire are sheep too, they just belong to a different flock. And they suffer the same disappointments when they can't get what they want, with highly coveted works there are not enough to go around.Yes, there are some things money cannot buy. Having billions of dollars alone is not enough to acquire the most coveted works of contemporary art, which have to be "placed" not sold to only those deemed worthy. These will only be "placed" where the reputation of the artist will get the most favor, perhaps with a billionaire who is a philanthropist, rather than a billionaire who makes a more vulgar impression.As wealth becomes more and more polarized, with money at the top so vast it is meaningless, we can only wonder where this will all end. I wish I had a $100M laying around, but alas, those Warhols have finally gotten away from me.

Aesthetics as a set of principles and branch of philosophy, deals with questions concerning beauty and artistic experiences. As far as our general understanding of it is concerned it is a highly nebulous field, subjected to tremendous degree of misinterpretation; particularly in the field of abstract, modern or conceptual art. In any field of humanities where the field is less accurately known, and its principles have not been precisely formulated, the more authoritarian the field becomes, where its rules are easily manipulated by those who can. In the field of visual arts, with no exact fundamentals precisely developed, the techniques and approaches are wide open for the artists to imagine, explore in creating their art.What I was trained to do as an artist when I was in art school myself and what I learned through experience and independent studies in polishing my skills and artistic expressions by which to communicate my aesthetic concepts in producing my art, were two entirely different fields. Art being the highest form of communication, its goal is to create effects along the spectrum of beauty and ugliness of life for the greater good, and in every instance, it communicates a message; a message emanating through the power of the artist's imagination appealing to our intellect and emotions.As the true nature of an artist continually inspires him to operate in the future and seek changes and improvements in the current state of existence, his art is to soothe our mind and transcend us from our agonies into a culture where it gives Man a splendor of peace and joy to rise to. This is in total contradiction to the "Shock and Awe" concept demonstrated in some of the conceptual arts we observe in the world at the expense of good and effective visual communication.Thus, treating art as a commodity, artificially branding it and manipulating its market with high level of speculation for nothing other than personal gains and social status - as Don Thompson presents in his "$12 Million Stuffed Shark" is a "kidnaping" of art from its true field into a manipulated commodity territory where its true purpose is badly corrupted at the expense of the aesthetics field and the culture, which it is intrinsically designed to improve by raising its consciousness."The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark" is unlike any other book about the art market. It is in essence a well researched, unbiased and documented text book. I was attracted to read it mainly due to the credentials of the author, Don Thompson, believing that it will be a very refreshingly worthwhile book to read and I was not disappointed, but rather quite impressed by its boldness and the candor by which it reveals the "insiders" trading rules of the art market that are openly veiled from the "outsiders." It is quite revealing, insightful, entertaining and richly filled with fascinating true incidents that arms the reader, the artist, the art student or the art admirer to make any discussion about art an awe-inspiring and engaging event.This is a book that should be read and understood by every artist - young and old - as a main curriculum, to richly complement his understanding of himself, his art and his career as an artist to discover some of the unknown and existing rules of the "Game" that he is playing and its effect upon himself without knowing it. The book should - when correctly understood and evaluated, bring about a realization of true self-worth and acknowledgment for the artist and renewal of faith and hope, that "good art" can still reign supreme - a postulate, a self-determined and self-created truth that one IS empowered, by the magic of his own awareness and imagination, create for himself and within his sphere of influence.

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Don Thompson wrote a revealing book that is easy to understand, even for those not linked to the art business world.His assertions are based on logical reasoning and his knowledge of economics and human psychology.I love the playful way he expresses complex and sometimes controversial concepts. That touch of humor makes it more human and friendly while still being academic and severe.

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art
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