Being unique is not exceptional – Economic Policy

Warhol had not only understood the mechanisms of celebrity but also sensed those of reinsurance in the art market.

To be a unique piece of art seems to be a prerequisite to drive the counters crazy. If people come from all over the world to see the Mona Lisa, it is because there is only one. This Monday at Christie’s in New York, a painting by Andy Warhol representing Marilyn Monroe was put up for auction. The sales pitch speaks of a painting that “transcends the genre of portraiture to the pinnacle of 20th century art, alongside The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, La Joconde by da Vinci and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. It’s one of the greatest paintings of all time.”

To be a unique piece of art seems to be a prerequisite to drive the counters crazy. If people come from all over the world to see the Mona Lisa, it is because there is only one. This Monday at Christie’s in New York, a painting by Andy Warhol representing Marilyn Monroe was put up for auction. The sales pitch speaks of a painting that “transcends the genre of portraiture to the pinnacle of 20th century art, alongside The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, La Joconde by da Vinci and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso. It’s one of the greatest paintings of all time.” This is well shot, but this painting has nothing unique. It is not, strictly speaking, an original work but the transfer of another work: the photo of Henry Hathaway – never credited – for the promotion of the film Niagara released in 1953. Moreover, this Marylin actually exists in five copies. However, the painting found a buyer at 195 million dollars, thus eclipsing the last record for an American artist (a Basquiat auctioned at 110.5 million dollars in 2017) and the highest price for an artist of the 20th century. But why on earth did a buyer shell out $195 million for a painting that exists in five nearly identical copies? It’s crazy, of course. But not absurd. First, because this one meter square has a narrative. It belongs to the Shot Marilyn series, so called since the performer Dorothy Podber, invited to the Factory, saw the Marilyns and asked the master of the place: “Can I shoot them?”. Warhol accepts, mistaking the meaning of the performer’s request, who pulls out not a camera but a colt, and lodges a bullet in Marylin’s temple, crossing the four canvases. Subsequently, Warhol repaired the damage… Then, because compared to other serigraphs by Warhol – such as the Mao printed in 250 copies – this one is relatively rare. Then again, because this piece has a pedigree of the first order, having passed through the hands of the greatest collectors, sold at the time by the New York gallery owner Leo Castelli, which gives it an exceptional, aristocratic lineage. Finally, and above all, because acquiring a work that is not unique has financial advantages. Isn’t that safer than buying $450 million for a Salvator Mundi which, admittedly, is unique but of which we don’t even know if it’s an authentic da Vinci? In fact, Warhol had not only understood the mechanisms of celebrity but also sensed those of reinsurance in the art market. Buying a unique work means finding yourself alone and exposing yourself to risk. A problem well known to real estate people: an unclassifiable product is often unclassifiable. Acquiring a painting on the market is not limited to owning the work: it is an invaluable pass to being part of the community of wealthy aesthetes who find themselves in Basel, Miami or Hong Kong. So it doesn’t matter if it’s unique or not (provided it’s not a fake). Because if luxury is inspired by art, the converse is just as true: buying a work of art today, like a luxury product – a bag, a watch or a yacht – is above all to belong at a club. Between the two, there is sometimes only a simple difference of zeros. And then, isn’t uniqueness just a figment of the imagination? “Nothing is so unique that it cannot be included in a list”, said Georges Perec, the author of La Disparition. If only in the list of things that claim to be unique.

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