The Real Value of Art

By Shantay Robinson


KERRY JAMES MARSHALL limited edition 12″ porcelain plate, 2007 edition 48 of 125

The valuation of art is a contentious subject for many. Most people don’t understand why anyone would spend millions of dollars on seemingly nonfunctional objects such as art. But the value of art deals less with its material qualities and more with its ethereal qualities. The lore surrounding Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life and death lends to the mystique embodied in his artwork. The somewhat tortured soul that he was allows us to read into his artworks through a lens of sympathetic understanding. Basquiat wanted fame from a largely homogenous art world. And although criticized for wanting that immortality, he did achieve his greatest aspiration. Last year, he surpassed Andy Warhol’s highest artwork sale with the sale of his Untitled skull painting. The last time the Basquiat painting had been sold in 1984 it was for $19,000. Thirty-three years later, Yusaka Maezawa purchased the painting from a Sotheby’s auction for $110.5 million.

“An artwork can have us think of society in ways that volumes of written text cannot.”

In the past year, works by African American artists have experienced unprecedented monetary gain. Mark Bradford achieved the highest amount acquired for the sale of art by an African American living artist in March obtaining $12 million for a work titled, Helter Skelter. The artwork was estimated to sell at between $8.3 million and $11 million. The owner of the piece, John McEnroe, who has also collected artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Glenn Ligon, and Kara Walker, wanted Helter Skelter to be in a museum where the public could study it. And the Broad Museum in Los Angeles paid the price. While the Bradford’s winning bid was just $1 million over the estimated sale price, his record was broken a mere month later with the sale of Past Times by Kerry James Marshall at Sotheby’s in May. Marshall’s sale procured $21.1 million from Sean “Diddy” Combs for the seller, Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, that purchased the artwork in 1997 for $25,000, garnering Marshall with the title of highest sale of a living African American artist.

How do we rationalize the rather overwhelming fluctuation in the price of art? What makes an artwork valuable?

Dorsey, Najee (Cool Papa Bell)

“Cool Papa Bell” by Najee Dorsey

Art challenges our thinking. Art provokes change in the individuals who view it. It asks that we look closely, think outside of the box, and participate in something bigger than ourselves. Art sparks conversations about our lived realities. And asks that we imagine things differently. An artwork can have us think of society in ways that volumes of written text cannot. Basquiat’s work tells tales of social and racial inequities in American society. The expression felt by his brushstrokes and the figures he painted relates aggression and hostility. When we look at Basquiat’s paintings we get a sense of the space where he existed and his experience in it.

According to Michael Findlay’s book, The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty, he describes practical properties that account for the price of art. Those attributes are provenance, condition, quality, authenticity, and exposure. Provenance refers to the art’s ownership lineage. An owner who is well-known and loved, lends more value to the artwork. The actual condition of the work also makes a difference. Too much restoration of an artwork can diminish its value. Quality is not determined by whether or not a picture is likable, as each one of us brings our own experiences to viewings. Quality is determined by an artist’s mastery of the medium and expression. The works have to be authentic to the artists. And when an artwork gains exposure through traveling and appearing in the right museum shows, it also gains value.

While supplies, at times, justify the price of an artwork, they don’t count for much. The real cost of artworks has less to do with the material it’s made of and more to do with the aura that surrounds the artwork. According to Walter Benjamin, who wrote “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in 1936, the aura relates to the uniqueness of an artwork. Benjamin argues that aura is lost today because of mechanical reproductions. Yes, it is possible to become enamored with an artwork in textbooks, on postcards, or on apparel. But to a certain extent the aura survives because the experience of witnessing the artwork in person tells different things about the artwork like scale, texture, and color. The aura justifies the price of artworks.

Catlett, Elizabeth, (New Generation)

New Generation by Elizabeth Catlett

Not only does the uniqueness or the “one-time experience” with an artwork explain the cost, but the artist’s investment in the artwork plays a vital role in the value of the work. While two artists can make similar paintings, one might be more valuable because of a particular artist’s reputation and body of work. The price of an artwork also reflects success the artist has had previous to the sale of any other work that comes after. Kerry James Marshall’s Past Time was estimated at between $8 and $12 million particularly because he had a 35-year retrospective, Mastry, in 2016 and 2017 at Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. And Marshall proved to be a big draw with the sale of his painting Still Life with Wedding Portrait at Christie’s for just over $5 million in 2017, which was a record for him at the time.

We can think of artists as encapsulating their worldviews and forming it to fit a canvas or sculpture. Because from an artwork we can begin thinking about the world, artists can be thought of as your guide to the worlds in which they live. Mark Bradford’s Helter Skelter, inspired by the race riots in the 1960s, the time during his formative years, gives us a glimpse of what a frenetic time that was. As there can be no rational value placed on a worldview or even a singular experience, the price of art reflects the invaluableness of the world the artist is offering to us through his art.


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Shantay Robinson participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While  receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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