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Monday, 9 April 2007

What's it worth?

Grayson Perry was in the news again last week. A piece of ceramic sculpture attributed to him was to be sold by Christies, the auctioneers, who expected it to realise £4000 - £ 6000. The piece in question, a representation of a boar entitled "The Children's Bore", was inscribed with the sort of comments made by nagging parents: "Get the hair out of your eyes", "Sit still", "Keep quiet", etc.

Perry had made such a piece way back in his early days, and had sold it to a friend, who had become, thereby, his first collector.

Alerted by Christies to the forthcoming sale, he at first thought that it might indeed be by him, but then realised that it was technically too good to belong to that stage of his career. He informed Christies, with the result that it was immediately reclassified as "English School" and given an estimated value of £100 - £150, which raises the question, as such incidents always do, of just what is the true value of a work of art, and how is it to be assessed. Is it, as maybe in a perfect world it would be, intrinsic? Or is it reasonable for a work to reflect the standing of its creator? Is the Mona Lisa more valuable because it was painted by Leonardo da Vinci, or would it be no less a work of art if painted by one of his students? Perry, who you may know to be one of my all time favourite commentators on all things aesthetic, believes that the way we view art derives from religion, that its artists are its holy fools and saints, that their works take on some of the attributes of relics, and that our attitudes towards them have much in common with those of the religious towards their relics, and are valued accordingly.

Well perhaps. A work of art, it seems to me, acquires its value in the same way as any other artefact: it is worth exactly what the purchaser can be persuaded to pay for it. Which maybe begs the question of what forms of persuasion can be used. Can it be seen as an investment opportunity? Which further begs the question of what, at some later date, will persuade another purchaser to pay a larger sum. Is it just its beauty or some other attribute that will make it desirable? Or is Perry on the right lines? That possessing a piece by a famed creator makes us feel closer to, in some sort of relationship to, that person? Or perhaps we do not fully trust our own instincts, in which case the knowledge that it has come from an impeccable source will be some sort of guarantee that we have the "genuine article". Perhaps it is just fashion? Or do we simply need something that is unique - and guaranteed to be so - to reinforce our own status as unique individuals, uniquely ourselves? We have what no one else has. Whatever the mechanism at work in any given case - and the mechanisms must be legion - they would seem to have more to do with psychology than aesthetics.

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