Books: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

By Regina Connell. I confess. Contemporary art–particularly conceptual art–often baffles me (oh come on, I know I’m not alone here). Yes, it does manage to enrage or entertain from time to time, and periodically, it just might make you think. But most of the time, standing alone in front of some installation, what we’re secretly thinking is…”really?”

Of course, we don’t say this. We nod sagely, utter banalities like “provocative” or “clever” or “fascinating” and try to move on as fast as possible.

This is, of course, because we like to come off as sophisticated. We hide our befuddlment and rationalize (to ourselves) that all “art” is subjective, conceptual is what’s in, and that afterall, the work of the Impressionists puzzled and enraged the cognoscenti of the 19th century.

But even the most jaded sophisticate moves rapidly from “really?” to “WTF?”, when they begin to consider the market for contemporary art: the kind of market in which someone would pay, let’s say, $12 million for a stuffed shark.

Of course it wasn’t just any shark. It was:

  • A shark floating in formaldehyde, part of an installation with the ultimate name for a piece of conceptual art: “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”
  • A shark not actually caught by the artist (Damian Hirst, one of the tribe of hot Young British Artists of that era). Rather, it was sourced via “Shark Wanted” ads on the Australian coast.
  • A shark that wasn’t quite a shark. Over time, the original shark (due to poor taxidermy, not conceptual intent) decomposed. It turned a pale green, and lost a fin (all of which turned the formaldehyde murky.) Technicians ultimately skinned the shark and stretched the skin over a fiberglass form, which raised the question whether this was even the same piece of art as the original. Even the commissioner of the work–ad man and art collector Charles Saatchi–opined that it wasn’t.

For this (and a complete replacement of the shark–calling into question yet again whether this was now a completely different piece of art) hedge fund manager Steve Cohen reportedly paid $12 million in 2005, beating out the Tate Modern, among others. It’s now at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In economist Don Thompson’s $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, the author takes an in-depth look at the dynamics around this sale to  illustrate the forces driving the contemporary art market and explore the concept of where value really comes from in the art world today.

For Thompson, the craziness of the market comes down to one key factor: insecurity, which increases the power of branded players and properties and drives pricing. It’s really what we expected all along, isn’t it? And yet it’s instructive to see exactly how this plays out along the way:

  • the so-called “branded” dealers, auction houses, collectors and artists;
  • buyers (for the very rich, $12 million is pocket change) and buyer psychology (think caveman: the herd mentality, the thrill of the hunt, the bloodlust of unbridled competition)
  • the trends (bottom line: the auction houses win, most dealers have a hard time) and
  • how art work is priced (and how artists can ride the cycle of boom to bust in a single night).

The book’s compulsively entertaining, slightly gossipy and yet meaty enough to defray any guilt. What’s remarkable about this book is its tone, which somehow manages to blend a genuine love of art; a wry, gentle incredulity at the state of the market today; and a reasonable analytical rigor when it comes to dissecting the forces at play today.

The book isn’t perfect, most notably in its failure to really grapple with the concept of “what is value” and more importantly, the ultimate question of what art really is (is art the same thing as art production–where, as with Damian Hirst’s shark–you just supervise others doing the work?) and how do you justify the change-out of the shark? Is there room for skill and talent in contemporary art (or is it just chutzpah, buzz-generation, and a really good title)? It would also have been interesting to better address what this means for art and artists (though perhaps it’s too blindingly obvious to explore).

And there’s a whiff of datedness to all this, as the book was written in the hubba-hubba pre-Lehman implosion days. And yet all reports are that the contemporary art market is back with a vengeance. The rich are richer, and money keeps spreading around the world. The Japanese were replaced by the Russians, who are still around, but being taken on by the Chinese, who’ll be taken on by…

…and so the game continues. It’s just not clear–unless you’re one of the major auction houses–who wins.


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