It has been reported that the $450 million price of the rediscovered
, Salvator Mundi
(c. 1500), was due to a vanity war between the Saudi royal family and the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates, who both mistakenly thought they were bidding against their art-collecting Gulf rival, the Qatari royal family. That a Russian oligarch had consigned the picture expecting to sell it at a loss (in order to bolster his court case against a Swiss freeport-owning art dealer), but unexpectedly reaped a $300 million gain, reveals an interesting truth: The highest segment of the market is often more about the rivalry and whims of a tiny group of billionaires than it is about the actual art.
The picture ultimately found its way to the Louvre Abu Dhabi after the Saudis reportedly flipped it for a mega-yacht, so I guess you can score one for the museum-going public. But museum officials I know are still annoyed by the whole saga. For them, art is supposed to exist beyond economics. Don’t believe me? If you get a chance to meet a curator, ask how much one of her museum’s great pictures is worth. You’ll get either an unsatisfying “priceless” or “incalculable,” or a remember-the-good-old-days talk about how art has become commoditized. But of course, no picture is priceless.
So what are the masterpieces lining museums’ walls worth to the people who could actually afford them? As a thought experiment, I asked several of the world’s great collectors and dealers (our clients) which pictures in U.S. museums they most want to own, and how much they would pay to own them. The pictures that came up again and again shared three characteristics: historical significance, celebrity, and contemporary appeal.
Historical significance is really a matter of influence. University of Chicago economist David Galenson, who studies the art market, told me that “pictures that have the greatest influence on the practice of other artists and the culture at large become canonized and sell for the highest prices.”
Celebrity is even simpler. Some works are famous for being famous. Pictures like ’s Christina’s World
(1948) at MoMA
or ’s Daybreak
(1922) attain a level of populist appeal that far outstrips their art historical influence. Some celebrity works are also significant. For collectors, owning a celebrity work delivers a jolt of status.
Contemporary appeal is a function of whatever is in vogue among the world’s 50 largest collectors. The preferences of this .000000007% of the world’s population drive prices at the highest end of the market. Genres go in and out of favor. Late 19th-century millionaires wanted
, early 20th-century robber barons favored
masters, 1980s Japanese tycoons acquired
. George Wachter, the Americas chairman of Sotheby’s, said today’s collectors “want an in-your-face, immediacy and intensity. Brash is in.”
The 10 pictures in U.S. museums I believe would make the highest price in my dystopian auction scenario (think the Bolshevik sale of Hermitage
masterworks in the 1930s) rate highly across these three areas.