Art as a Commodity

October 30, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andrew Gelman looks at my post about the fake Rothko from a slightly different angle – moral outrage.  If you paid $8 million for what turns out to be a fake, you’ve been ripped off, and you react accordingly.

I agree.  But the moral consideration still doesn’t close the gap between aesthetic value and market value.  You feel ripped off only if you were thinking of the Rothko as a commodity.

Two (or two and a half) personal anecdotes relate to this distinction, though I’m not sure how.

When I was a young grad student, I bought a couple of Calder prints as a birthday gift for my mother.  The woman in the art shop said that if I preferred, she had the same prints but signed by Calder.  They cost ten times as much.

“You mean they’re identical except for a signature?” I asked.  (How naive I was.)  I bought the unsigned ones, very pleased with myself for getting such a bargain.  I had the same prints that some artsy pretentious schmuck was going to pay ten times as much for.

When my mother died, we consigned the prints, along with much of the rest of her stuff, to an auction house. 

They sold for much more than I’d paid decades earlier, but it was still less than I’d hoped.   I kept wondering: what if I’d bought the signed version?  How much more would a signed Calder have appreciated?

My first summer in New York, I met a guy at the tennis courts who turned out to be an art dealer.  (The people who have their afternoons free to play tennis are people who don’t have real jobs – musicians, actors, art dealers, professors . . .)

One afternoon I asked him, “Just hypothetically, if I was going to buy something, what would you suggest?”

“Well, right now I have some Frank Stella drawings you could have for $200.”

I passed.  It seemed like a lot of money back then, at least to me, even if I’d been crazy about Stella, which I wasn’t.

Occasionally, I still find myself thinking: what if I’d bought one (or more) as an investment, as a commodity?  I’d have done well.


I once asked the art dealer* if he’d seen some art show that was getting good coverage in the press.  No, he said.  The only art that he could appreciate now was from the Renaissance.  Why? I asked.

“Because I know I can’t touch it.  With anything else, I’m looking at it and thinking about whether I could buy it and who I could sell it to and what I could get for it.  I can’t enjoy it as art.”


* What I didn’t know at the time was that he didn’t really think of himself as an art dealer.  It was just something he did when he couldn’t make a living in his true metier – theater.  (I just discovered this by searching for him on the Internet.  And now I realize why his regular tennis partner was a conductor/musical-director who did Broadway and other non-symphony gigs.)

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