The Evolving Value of Contemporary Art

Contemporary art, with its bold concepts and unorthodox forms, sparks lively debates and passions, comparable to those surrounding classical masterpieces.

The Evolving Value of Contemporary Art

Contemporary art, with its bold concepts and unorthodox forms, sparks lively debates and passions, comparable to those surrounding classical masterpieces.

The NOW Evening Auction at Sotheby’s New York on May 18th 2023. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Comparing auction sales for 2023 reveals that both classical and contemporary art have their aficionados and investors.

Claude Monet’s “Le bassin aux nymphéas,” 1919, fetched $74,010,000 at Christie’s New York auction of Impressionist and modern art in November. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “El Gran Espectaculo (The Nile),” 1983, sold for $67,110,000 at Christie’s 21st-century auction in May. Gustav Klimt’s “Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee),” circa 1901, sold for $53,188,500 at Sotheby’s modern evening auction in New York, shortly before the sale of “Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan)” (1917).

Francis Bacon’s “Figure in Movement,” 1976, fetched $52,160,000 at Christie’s 20th-century evening sale in New York in November. Richard Diebenkorn’s “Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad,” 1965, sold for $46,410,000 at Christie’s 20th-century evening sale in November. Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange),” 1955, went for $46,410,000 at Christie’s in November. Wassily Kandinsky’s “Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II),” 1910, was sold for £37,196,800 ($44,758,691) at Sotheby’s London auction in March.

The comparison of prices is striking for its similarity, demonstrating that contemporary art not only evokes emotions but also becomes the object of substantial investments. Contemporary art, unlike classical, often offers more than mere aesthetic pleasure. It serves as a mirror to modernity, reflecting contemporary social and political themes, which makes it interesting not only for collectors but also for investors seeking new capital investment opportunities.

Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian” and Damien Hirst’s “Shark” are vivid examples of how the intertwining of art, marketing, and media attention creates a new economic reality. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” officially named Damien Hirst’s “Shark,” was initially purchased by Charles Saatchi in 1991 for about £50,000. Saatchi played a key role in promoting the work and the artist himself, significantly increasing the value and popularity of the piece. Later, in 2004, Steven A. Cohen, an American billionaire and art collector, acquired the “Shark” for a reported sum of about $8 million.

“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” — Damien Hirst

This acquisition is considered one of the most notable in the world of contemporary art and symbolizes the growing value and influence of contemporary art on the global art market. By buying the “Shark” for a relatively modest sum and selling it for millions, Saatchi demonstrated his ability to influence the art market and raise the value of artists’ works. This event also underscored how marketing, media attention, and the artist’s brand can influence the perception and value of art. When Steven A. Cohen acquired the “Shark” in 2004, he actually received an updated version of the work. The original tiger shark, used by Damien Hirst in 1991, began to decompose over time, despite being conserved in formalin. This led to the need to replace the shark with a new one to preserve the visual and conceptual effect of the work. Hirst and his team recreated the piece using a new shark, thus, Steven A. Cohen acquired an already restored version of the work. This intriguing moment raises questions about the nature of art and what makes an artwork original or valuable. Despite the replacement of the shark, the work continued to remain significant and highly valued in the realm of contemporary art.

“Comedian” — Maurizio Cattelan

“Comedian,” Maurizio Cattelan’s piece, sold for $120,000, became a symbol of temporality and sparked discussions about what we truly value in art. Like the “Shark,” “Comedian” raises questions about the nature of art, its value, and how we determine what makes an artwork tasteful and significant. The concept of the work turns out to be more important than its material base, raising additional questions about what is truly valued and purchased in the art market. “Comedian” indeed represents a real banana, taped to a wall. Like any fresh product, the banana deteriorates over time. However, the concept of the work allows for its replacement. In the case of “Comedian,” the value of the work lies not in the physical banana itself but in the idea and the certificate of authenticity sold to the buyer. The owner has the right to replace the banana as necessary. This work of art sparked much debate and controversy about the nature of art, its value, and the concept behind the artist’s intention. In a sense, it’s the idea, not the material, that constitutes the artwork in the case of “Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan.

Contemporary art, with its ephemeral creations and astronomical prices, poses questions about the value, longevity, and nature of art investments. As auctions continue to set sales records, the question remains open: is contemporary art a reliable investment, or just the next “bubble” in the financial market?

What do you think, can contemporary art maintain its value over the years? To what extent are you willing to rely on contemporary art as an investment?

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