Why Are Paintings Worth So Much?

This is a question that I puzzle over every time I see a news story about a new art auction record. It might be more understandable if the subject was historically significant. A painting can be significant; if it’s by a historically significant artist or perhaps shows a historical event, in which case it belongs in a museum. Paintings were at one time like photographs or posters. Kings and Queens had their portraits painted but the objects they held might have some great meaning, like the last kingdoms they had conquered or become rulers of. Many paintings are similar because the ‘common’ people wanted to emulate their royalty so they made sure what they were holding had meaning.

Does symbolism and history increase the value of the painting itself? I don’t think so. Historical significance might make some people think that the value is increased but the main thing is the painting itself. The time and skill involved in producing the painting imparts value. So what makes a Van Gogh worth 60 million and a Titian worth 20 million? These prices are increasing by leaps and bounds. My argument is that the painting has little or nothing to do with the price paid at auction. The materials used may impart some value to it but more important is the time it took to produce and the talent of the artist. Over time the painting may become rare; for example if many of the artists’ works disappear. Rarity can enhance value so long as the artist is popular.

So if A and B are bidding on a painting that A thinks is outrageously valuable, A bids some outlandishly high price perhaps because they think B won’t pay that much. B also thinks the painting is outrageously valuable and subsequently bids higher than A. The painting is now worth more than it was; actually it may now be worth more than either A or B have bid due to the possibility that C may be out there with deeper pockets. C may have never thought about the painting until A and B decided it was worth so much. Does either A, B or C have any reason to think that the painting is so valuable?

I have a hard time imagining that any of this could impart a value equivalent to a house or a medium sized office building. I think that a painting or any other art work is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it. If someone thinks that a painting is worth 60 million and they have that much in their pocket, then more power to them. The artist no longer cares because he or she is likely long gone and so will never benefit from a price paid at auction.

A case in point. A painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat sold recently at auction for $110.5 million. I won’t try to argue the paintings merits. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t really mean anything. I guess I should be happy that anyone is willing to pay anything at all for a painting.