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Why do we pay so much for original works of art?

REUTERS/Andrew Burton
In March, an original version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" sold for a record-breaking $120 million.

The August issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General includes a fascinating study that attempts to answer the question that comes up every time another work of art — such as Cezanne’s “The Card Players” or Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” — is sold for an astronomical amount: Why do we give original artwork so much value?

As the study’s authors, Yale psychologists George Newman and Paul Bloom, point out in their paper’s introduction, the monetary value we place on artwork has everything to do with the provenance of the work and little, if anything, to do with its aesthetic properties or whether we think it’s skillfully executed. Take the infamous case of “The Disciples at Emmaus,” which was believed to have been painted by Johannes Vermeer until it was discovered to be a forgery in 1945. “[I]t went from being one of the most valuable paintings in Holland to a near worthless curiosity,” write Newman and Bloom. “None of the painting’s perceptible properties had changed, merely beliefs about the object’s history.”

This also explains, say the professors, why ordinary objects presented as art — Marcel Duchamp’s porcelain urinal, Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaners and Robert Smithson’s piles of broken glass, for example — command huge sums of money, “whereas physically indiscernible displays that did not come into contact with the artist (e.g., an identical commercial vacuum cleaner) are of no aesthetic interest and are worth substantially less.”

Unique to works of art

In this study, which was a series of five experiments, Newman and Bloom explored why people assign special value to original artwork and the psychological mechanisms underlying that assignment of value.

They found that the value placed on originals is somewhat special to the art world. In one experiment, for example, participants assigned much less value to a duplicate of a $100,000 painting than to a duplicate of a $100,000 prototype of a car.

In another experiment, participants were told that a manufacturer had created a one-of-a-kind chair. Some were told the maker intended the chair to be displayed as art; others were told it was intended as a piece of furniture. They were also told that the original had been accidentally destroyed and replaced with an identical copy that had been made by someone else. They were then asked to value the copy. The participants assigned the duplicated chair significantly less value than the original when it was intended as a work of art.

In a third experiment, participants were asked to value two paintings of the same scene: “A Covered Bridge” and “Son of a Covered Bridge.” They were not told that both paintings had been created by the same artist, Jim Rilko. Instead, half of the participants were told that two artists had coincidentally painted the same landscape. The other half were told that an artist had copied a painting made by another artist. Those who thought the paintings were a coincidence tended to value both paintings the same. Those who thought the painting had been copied gave the “original” painting a high value and the “copy” a low one.

‘Law of contagion’

Interestingly, other research has shown that even 6-year-old children view duplicates as being less valuable than originals, especially when they’re told that the original object was owned by someone special (like the Queen of England). This “law of contagion” — the idea that objects take on special value because of who had physical contact with them — was also explored by Newman and Bloom in their study. In one of their experiments, for example, participants placed a higher value on a unique piece of sculpture when it was said to have been created by a very hands-on process (one in which the artist had a lot of physical contact with the item) than when it was created by machinery.

Such contagion effects are not limited to art, of course. “People have paid considerable money for a tape measure owned by President Kennedy, an autograph by astronaut Neil Armstrong, and pop star Britney Spears’s chewed-up bubble gum,” write Newman and Bloom. “Such objects are valued because of where they came from and the people they came into contact with and not because of their tangible properties or presumed specialty utility. For example, if the buyer of the tape measure discovered that it was actually not from the Kennedy household, he would presumably be outraged and want his $48,875 back, though nothing perceptible or tangible about the object would have changed.”

I think I’d want my money back anyway.

(Hat tip: Christian Jarrett at BPS Digest.)

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/24/2012 - 12:13 pm.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but

    Looks like the people of Minneapolis pay whatever their Democrat city leaders say they will pay.

    Latest acquisition, for instance, will cost 100 residents of along a stretch of Penn Ave $680,000 for one-of-a-kind street lights.

    They’ll go really nicely with those $500,000 drinking fountains, probably.

    • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 08/24/2012 - 01:43 pm.


      Another tiresome diatribe by Thomas Swift. An interesting article about the psychology of art begets yet another political bash. Can’t Minnpost just automate a Thomas Swift submission link below each article so the rest of can enjoy the good writing and thoughtful responses?

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