July 24th, 2014

Review: The Supermodel and the Brillo Box by Don Thompson

The Supermodel and the Brillo Box
by Don Thompson

The exclusive world of the high-end art market is inscrutable for many. What makes one contemporary artist’s work sell for millions of dollars at auction while another artist with great talent struggles to get his paintings into galleries? Following up on an earlier book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Don Thompson returns to the economics of the art world, studying the impact of the 2008 economic crash on the market and finding out who buys the art, and how, and why.

If you want a book about the aesthetics of contemporary art, something that explains why a pile of individually-wrapped candies is considered “art” but a Thomas Kinkade painting is not…well, keep looking. This is a book about money, and economics, and marketing. It’s all business here. Now, one can argue (and Thompson does, quite successfully) that it is the branding and the economic investment of key interested parties that determines which art ends up in museums and in art histories, but my point is that this isn’t really a book that explains art, per se. It explains the art market.

And it turns out that the art market is a lot more screwed up than an art history major devoted to the memory of Michelangelo and Caravaggio would like to believe. A painting by a certain artist goes to auction at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Based on previous auctions, an estimate is made for the value of the art. When the bidding begins, the winner is often already known. Straw bids by the auctioneer inflate the price past any reserve. Should a piece threaten to sell for too little, other collectors may jump in on the auction not because they want this piece, but to protect the value of other paintings they may have by this same artist – after all, a low auction price will damage future estimates for their collection. It’s all a money game, an alternative form of investing that only the top 0.000001% can play.

But it’s fascinating. Don Thompson explores not just the world of the auction house, but the super-elite art dealers who help make artists into household names. He reveals that some of the biggest spenders are emerging art markets in the Middle East and China, and revels in their plans for the massive art collections acquired. He explores art world failures, too – why the upper-end art market hasn’t successfully made the move to the Internet, despite multiple attempts over the years, or how many of the smaller galleries are being shut down, unable to compete with the superpowers.

There are some dry passages that I found difficult to get through. A list of the twenty-five biggest art collectors? No doubt that’s interesting if you’re looking to sell some Warhols or Hirsts, but to me it’s just a list of people with far too much money to play with. But reading about the ways this handful of people sustain something as bizarre as the contemporary art market is so interesting that it easily makes up for the occasional dull moment.

3.5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Supermodel and the Brillo Box, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Mila 2.0 by Debra Driza
2012: Otomen Vol. 1 by Aya Kanno
2011: Ghost Radio by Leopold Gout
2010: Off to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival!
2009: Beautiful as Yesterday by Fan Wu
2008: Dragon Road by Laurence Yep