On the value of contemporary art

It was a warm Friday in Cairo. I was going through some pressing paperwork when the phone rang and a friend from New York said, breathlessly, ‘are you watching?’ My response was a simple and calm, ‘what are you talking about?’

Lucy urged me to go online and watch the auction of a New York family’s unbelievable collection. She said the prices were staggering, and the works were confusing. 

I asked what was confusing about them, as I started up my laptop. Lucy reported that a white canvas was sold for over ten million dollars… a small weird bronze for over fifty million dollars etc.

As she was continuing to express her surprise and shock, my screen lit up to display the auctioneer grinning like a Cheshire cat as he waved left and right, with more agility than a belly dancer, his hands dancing in the air. ‘It’s against you’, he was saying. ‘Will you try 18 million dollars? Thank you’, he concluded on the phone, then swung his neck like a cobra and looked across the seated audience, towards the opposite side: ‘give me five.’ In less than two minutes he had sold the painting for twenty million dollars. (The cost to the buyer would be even more after adding the auction house’s commission.)

As I was watching, Lucy blurted: ‘see, this next item? It’s another blank canvas.’ 

‘Not exactly,’ I replied, ‘it has pin-like coloured dots.’ 

Lucy, bewildered, said she did not know what that meant. She added that the lot was currently at USD 6M and there were a lot of bids. Soon, the price was at USD 7M, and the smiling auctioneer fiddled with the hammer.

Referring to the next item, Lucy said: ‘it is a spilled can of paint, and the bid is USD 21M… how can that be?’

‘Dear Lucy, this is not art in the common sense but a valuation of an item, a painted sculpture.’

The screen was showing a lot of jostling on the phones, amongst the auction-house staff that represented the buyers. Some were staring silently, hands over their mouths; others raised their hands to bid; or, with a flat hand across their neck, announced that they were withdrawing. It was a surreal dance led by the auctioneer, who pounced left and right, hands swishing in the air, as bids were thrown at him.

As we watched, Lucy in New York and myself in Cairo, the total hammer reached over USD 200 million. What was most astonishing to me was that a 7-inch sculpture, replicating an ice cream cone, had sold for USD 11 million.

Searching the audience, I could see blank eyes and open mouths; but as the camera panned, the smiles of the unmasked staff were quite evident. The auctioneer was on fire: bending forward, moving to the left and then swinging to the right, banging his gavel as bid after bid broke their estimates. Finally, the auctioneer thanked everyone and announced the end of this historic sale, which netted close to half a billion dollars.

I said: ‘Lucy, are you still there?’ 

Her reply: ‘Shafik, explain.’

I told her there was nothing to explain – it is a combination of various factors including, but not limited to: the fact that there is a lot of cheap money; an enormous appetite to own what are considered icons; amazing marketing, social media build up and interest in savouring a well-known name; plus the supply and demand equation.

As Lucy acquiesced to this ongoing reality – not necessarily agreeing with it – I reminded her that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that value is created by the market.

‘Otherwise’, I added, ‘how can you explain that a few balloons that resemble an animal can be sold for tens of millions of dollars?’

After the call ended, I remembered that, years ago, I had been invited to the home of a wealthy and extremely hospitable couple in Manhattan. I stood in a beautiful room with walls full of paintings, as the hosts allowed their guests to tour the house and their collection freely, along with a very well-known art historian. I was dumbfounded by what I saw: a painting of a single dot; another one with three horizontal layers of colour; a third with a lot of swishes in black; and, finally, a wooden panel depicting a fish. The art historian could see the ignorance oozing out of my eyes.

He approached me and said: ‘don’t worry. The art in this room today is worth two hundred million dollars. That is today. But in terms of art, it is rubbish, and in ten years it will be forgotten.’ I took comfort in his remarks, but I could not get rid of the feeling that the art world reflects the world we live in today.