For sale: second hand from a celebrity

For sale: second hand from a celebrity

Is it worth being a celebrity? Ask Eric Clapton! Yesterday he sold his watch for 3.4 million dollars. Last month Sotheby’s auctioned a painting by Gerhard Richter from his collection. It sold for 34 million dollars. The Patek Phillippe watch is rare and the only other of its kind was auctioned in 1989 for $250,000. The painting by Richter was acquired by Clapton in November 2001 – two months after 9/11for less that 3.5 million dollars. Sotheby’s hammer came down at 34 million – creating a new record for a living artist. You can do the arithmetics. Interestingly, five months ago another Richter from the same series sold for 22 million – that’s 40% less. With all due respect to Richter, the value of his art didn’t rise 40% in five months. Therefore, there must be another explanation.

An objects journey through the world.

The key term for unfolding the mystery is Provenance. Every collector is aware of the life cycle of an object or artwork. Imagine an object that is born in a factory or an artist studio. Once it leaves its “birthplace” it starts its journey in the world. This can be long or short – depending on how many stops it makes on the way. Consider an artwork: Sometime it might leave the artists studio and land in a stop where it may rest for many years – a collectors home, for example. If it lands at a gallery it may quickly be sold and then resold. Any important stop on its trajectory – a major gallery or collection, a quick diversion to be part of a museum exhibition – all these will be marked and noted. This is the provenance of an artwork. Provenance leaves traces – writings or stickers on the stretcher, invoices, museum loans etc. The more the better as this effects the economic value of the artwork. I shall next explain how.

The value of art

A painting does not have inherent value. Ok – it does: the cost of the materials + labour. But quite clearly art doesn’t sell so cheap. What exactly are we paying for? The monetary value of a work of art is based on 4 parameters:

  1. Who is the artist – is he known? Is he auctioned at major auction houses?

  2. What gallery represents him? This is important because of the hierarchy of galleries. For example – any artist represented by Gagosian gallery will immediately attract attention and will be marked as worthy.

  3. What is the provenance of the artwork – this question is relevant mainly in auctions but also in galleries. As I said above – a gallery can itself be an important provenance. If the piece had been part of an important collection this will add value to its price. Value also rises if the artwork is illustrated in a book or has been exhibited in a museum show. The option of being owned by someone famous is interesting. For example, the collection of Yves Saint Laurent that was auctioned in 2009 was sold for a record breaking price. People stood in line for hours to see the collection on view at the Grand Palais. YSL is not famous for his expertise in art and nor is Eric Clapton. But the social capital of the owner is part of the attraction to the artwork. This can be explained in sociological terms, by seeing possessions as an extension of ones identity. The implications meaning that in our minds, if we acquire a dress that belonged to Marilyn Monroe, we become the owners of a part of Marilyn. The action house used the phrase The Clapton Richter – emphasizing the bond between the two powerful names – this is not just a Richter, this is Clapton’s Richter! They know the power of celebrity. The buyer gains additional celebrity value by owning a “part” of Eric Clapton.

  4. The last parameter in economic evaluation of art is the quality of the artwork. I imagine that this will raise a few eyebrows as the general belief is that the quality is the most important thing. (Ask any artist). It is no secret that there are a great amount of wonderful artworks out there that nobody considers acquiring because the first three parameters do not exist for them. On the other hand, we know that art doesn’t have to be great in order to sell for extremely high prices.

One might feel uncomfortable reading this analysis but the fact is that it works and there are so many examples why it pays to be a celebrity… There are always people that want a part of you. Look at Eric Clapton – laughing all the way to the bank.