My right-leaning friends insist that the market is the fairest and most efficient arbiter of value. From this I deduce that Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud”, which sold this week for $142.4 million, is the finest picture ever painted. Its price, Roberta Smith noted, exceeds the annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. Clearly, art is less in the beholder’s eye than the investor’s pocket. My own modest foray into the art world, however, might contain a gram of caution. Many years ago I bought at Christie’s a very large painting for $1,800. When it arrived at our door, my wife took one look and decreed it would not hang in our apartment. That seemed no way to treat a serious collector, especially one with a formula: I had observed that big paintings generally sold for more than small ones – and mine had the highest square-inch value in the entire auction. Plus, the artist was dead. This was a slam dunk.
Because the painting wouldn’t fit in a taxi, I had to haul it back uptown on the subway. It sold at the next auction for $850.
The value of art also made news in Detroit, where the city-owned Institute of Art teems daily with schoolchildren, staring wondrously at Diego Rivera’s epic mural celebrating the common man. Creditors are pushing the city to sell some of its “priceless” art to pay down some of its $18-billion debt. I wonder what the children think. I wonder what Rivera thinks.