THE $12 MILLION STUFFED SHARK: THE CURIOUS ECONOMICS OF CONTEMPORARY ART by Don Thompson (Doubleday), 268 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
As world markets crumbled last month, at least one man knew his net worth wasn't falling: British artist Damien Hirst. On September 15, Hirst's works earned their highest-ever auction prices, including $17 million for a stuffed shark.
In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (which refers to Hirst's previous highest price), York U business prof Don Thompson asks why certain works of art command so much cash while others rot away in studios.
Thompson is an economist, and that's good. He focuses on things like the branding of artists, collectors and dealers, and competition between auction houses and gallerists. This helps explain why prices for some contemporary art can equal the operating budgets of the MoMA.
Similarly, Thompson is an economist, and that's bad. He describes artworks in terms of materials, not meaning or effect. You get the sense that he might describe a great pizza as flour and water topped with old tomatoes and cheese, warmed.
Still, there are locally relevant insights here. A chapter on museums and private interests is particularly timely given that the AGO's huge reno gives collector Ken Thomson an exclusive display space. And a chapter on art fairs explains why Queen West gallerists spend so much time out of the country these days.
The shark is so expensive, there's no way anyone in Toronto could either buy it or bring it here - but some of its lessons still resonate.
Thompson reads and is interviewed by Mark Kingwell Sunday (October 26), 2 pm, at the Studio Theatre.