Mark Rothko painting_Michael Newman Michael Newman/Flickr

The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art

In New York last month, Christie’s sold $745 million worth of postwar and contemporary art, the highest total it has ever reached in a single auction. In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing.

MELBOURNE – In New York last month, Christie’s sold $745 million worth of postwar and contemporary art, the highest total that it has ever reached in a single auction. Among the higher-priced works sold were paintings by Barnett Newman, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, each of which sold for more than $60 million. According to the New York Times, Asian collectors played a significant part in boosting prices.

No doubt some buyers regard their purchases as an investment, like stocks or real estate or gold bars. In that case, whether the price they paid was excessive or modest will depend on how much the market will be willing to pay for the work at some future date.

But if profit is not the motive, why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these? They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill. They are not even unusual within the artists’ oeuvres. Do an image search for “Barnett Newman” and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all of the variations. Last month, someone bought one of those variations for $84 million. A small image of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol – there are many of those, too – sold for $41 million.

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