Is art really meant to be an “asset class”? Will the digital revolution finally democratize a market that just keeps getting more elitist? And what will happen to the last painting Alice Neel ever made? (Part 3 of “The Hidden Side of the Art Market.”)
Listen and follow our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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James DINEEN: I’m Dr. James Dineen and I’m a primary care internist at the Mass General Hospital in Boston, where I practiced for 45 years and retired from patient care in 2008.
James Dineen is looking through some photographs from a long time ago.
DINEEN: This is my sitting in Alice Neel’s backyard. This is Alice beginning the portrait.
Alice Neel was a painter, born in 1900. Her specialty was painting people — what you and I might call “portraits” — but she didn’t care for that word.
Kelly BAUM: Neel was resistant to the genre of portraiture, which she associated with status and wealth.
And that’s Kelly Baum. She’s a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
BAUM: Stuffy, stiff, uninspired, overly romanticized, without a critical or radical spirit.
Neel preferred to call her paintings “pictures of people that are also history.”
BAUM: Neel’s pictures are always more than just the person they represent.
Baum recently co-curated a massive Alice Neel retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum. It was called “People Come First.” The vast majority of the people Neel painted were not well-known. Dr. James Dineen fits that description well.
DINEEN: One day at the office, she said, “I’d like to paint you.” So this is in early 1984, and my son and I drove down to Spring Lake, New Jersey, and she painted me in her backyard.
How did Alice Neel happen to meet James Dineen, and why did she decide to paint him? Okay, let’s back up. Neel had an eventful, often traumatic life. The early death of a child, another child essentially kidnapped by her estranged husband, a mental breakdown and a couple of attempted suicides. This was all before she turned 30. She did have two more children — one became a doctor, the other an investment advisor. All the while, she painted obsessively. Neel had her fans, especially toward the end of her life, but her work didn’t sell often or for much money. In her later years, she started suffering spells, bouts of confusion; sometimes she’d lose consciousness. She was hospitalized in New York and underwent test after test, doctor after doctor. No one could figure out what was wrong. By this time, her son Hartley was a radiology resident at Massachusetts General Hospital. He arranged for his mother to be examined by an internist there — Dr. James Dineen.
DINEEN: I remember vividly the night before, having received the records from New York, saying, “Wow, they did every test known to mankind and no luck.” So I went in early the next morning and I’m sitting there doing the interview and all of a sudden she starts having one of her spells, which is really vague mumbling and staring at the ceiling out of confusion. And I followed an old rule that I learned from an internist at Yale Medical School: if you don’t know what to do, a good idea is to simply take the patient’s pulse and they’ll think you’re doing something important.
So, Dineen took Neel’s pulse — or at least tried to.
DINEEN: Well, lo and behold, she didn’t have a pulse. So the problem was she needed a pacemaker. So we put a pacemaker in, and all the spells went away. And she henceforth considered us the golden answer to medical problems, and that’s how our relationship began.
That’s also how Neel wound up painting James Dineen, in her backyard in New Jersey.
DINEEN: Two things I remember vividly about that experience was, one, she had absolutely no tremor, she could hold her arm extended with a fine-tip paint brush and there was zero tremor, which was really remarkable for a lady who was then almost 84. And the second thing I remember vividly was how smart she was. She talked nonstop. She asked me so many questions about politics and religion and science and everything else. Had I read this book? Had I read that book? And believe me, her worldwide experience was far superior to my Harvard/ Yale experience in terms of general knowledge. And during all this chatter, she’d be busy painting.
The painting of James Dineen was in all likelihood the last painting Alice Neel ever made. She died soon after. Her family then called Dr. Dineen, said they wanted to give him the painting.
DINEEN: So one day we went down and visited her apartment, which was also her studio. And the family gave me the painting.
The painting shows Dineen sitting at ease, not quite smiling but with a relaxed expression, perhaps slightly bemused. His hair is longish with a side part; it was the 1980s. He’s wearing a green polo shirt and checked pants. His hands are resting on the arms of the chair; one hand is open, the other slightly clenched.
DINEEN: She really focuses on eyes and she also focuses on hands. The hands are what stand out.
The painting of Dineen has never appeared in an exhibition of Alice Neel’s work.
DINEEN: The painting is in our bedroom. And so when my wife and I wake up every morning and look up at the wall, there it is. I don’t think the painting looks quite like me, but I remember way back, one of the granddaughters, who was probably two or three, awakening from a nap and looking up at the painting and saying, “Gramps.” And I couldn’t believe it, that she at that age could recognize the painting, which she had never really seen before, and no one had ever told her who it was.
Between the time Alice Neel painted James Dineen in her backyard and today, Neel’s reputation has undergone a — well, a “turnaround” doesn’t even begin to describe it. During her life, she was a marginal artist; and now — as evidenced by that massive retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum — she’s considered a master. Accordingly, the value of her works has skyrocketed. As we described in the first episode of this series, a single Alice Neel painting from 1966 — and not a particularly noteworthy painting — recently sold at auction for $2.5 million. What does Dr. James Dineen think about that?
Yes, “wow.” It’s hard to put it much better than that. Today on Freakonomics Radio: the third and final episode of a series we’re calling “The Hidden Side of the Art Market.” In the first episode, we examined the nature of the market and the major players:
Canice PRENDERGAST: It’s one of the strangest markets that I have ever seen.
Magnus RESCH: Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the artists that you see at galleries and exhibitions, their value will never increase.
Amy CAPPELLAZZO: The art market is a fascinating, sexy, intellectually compelling, unregulated global market.
In the second episode, we looked at the market from the perspective of the artists:
Tom SACHS: It is extremely unregulated and subject to all kinds of monkey business that I can’t fully understand.
Tschabalala SELF: I think the whole thing is vulgar.
SACHS: There’s this phrase that was coined by a friend of mine called L.P.M.: lies per minute.
And in this final episode, we explore how contemporary art became such an elite product.
RESCH: It initially started off by Leo Castelli, who is the godfather of the gallery world.
We’ll look at the disruptors trying to change the market:
Masha GOLOVINA: I would say 99 percent of people signed up have no experience in the market.
Including the digital disruptors:
Kenny SCHACHTER: Imagine all of a sudden you had all this cash and there was no Bloomingdale’s.
And of course, we find out what Dr. James Dineen plans to do with the last painting Alice Neel ever made.
DINEEN: We did have somebody from Skinner’s come by and look at it.
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What’s the point of art in the first place? That question is too big to answer, at least for me. Our species has been making art since the beginning. It has served religious and political purposes; propaganda purposes; it’s been made as social commentary and pure esthetic expression. And that’s just from the maker’s side. When you look at a piece of art, or live with it — it may speak to you, even move you, though perhaps in a way that it doesn’t move anyone else. What art likely wasn’t meant to be was a product in a market that’s become extraordinarily top-heavy. A market where a handful of top artists sell for millions of dollars, even tens or hundreds of millions, with the spoils going to billionaires, the spillover going to museums, and the public largely left out. In a given year, only 25 percent of U.S. adults visit an art museum or gallery; only 20 percent own a piece of original art. Meanwhile, the average price of contemporary art has tripled over the past two decades. You could argue that high prices do offer one big advantage: they create an incentive for artworks to be preserved over time, treated like a treasure. That said, anyone who thinks that art should be a central feature of the human experience is bound to be disappointed. Like I said: it’s a top-heavy market. If you want an uglier word: elitist. How’d it get that way?
RESCH: We somehow lost our love for art.
That’s the economist Magnus Resch, who studies the art market.
RESCH: We lost it because gallerists made it incredibly difficult to buy art. They established this aura of exclusivity.
DUBNER: Is that intimidation — if it’s fair to call it that — a strategy or just a product of the kind of people that end up running galleries?
RESCH: It initially started off by Leo Castelli, who is the godfather of the gallery world.
Leo Castelli opened his first gallery, in New York, in 1957. He was a dominant dealer for the next several decades, helping launch the careers of artists including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenberg, and Donald Judd. Castelli did this by curating an international network of collectors and tastemakers. He believed the caliber of the buyer was at least as important as the price paid.
RESCH: He wanted to have a conversation with potential buyers, so he didn’t put up the prices. However, now gallerists have pushed it to the extreme where they created this aura of exclusivity, which is just so not state-of-the-art anymore. I’m always fascinated when I see a young gallerist trying to copy the Castelli model that might have worked 50 years ago, but it certainly isn’t working anymore.
And what makes Resch say this model isn’t working?
RESCH: You have 80,000 people who go to Art Basel in Miami every year. And of those 80,000, maybe 500 people are actually buying an artwork. That’s a very poor conversion. The biggest problem in the art world today is that not enough people are buying art. We need to change that. This starts with price transparency. Right now, I go into a gallery, and I have no idea how much the artwork on the wall costs. I need to ask and then go through a beauty contest where the gallery director comes from the back and then looks at me, and maybe tells me the price. That is not how our generation is used to buy something. I want to have all the information available immediately.
RESCH: We gathered over 1.5 million price points from galleries. It worked perfectly well. But then Apple shut us down because all the galleries complained.
Organizations like ARTnet and Artsy have created databases that include price and ownership history for artwork sold on the secondary market, at public auction. But it’s still hard to get information from galleries and other sellers on the primary market.
RESCH: The primary market is a complete black box.
Here’s the good news: if you don’t like the hidebound, secretive, exclusionary elements of today’s art market — change may be coming.
CAPPELLAZZO: The art market is in massive disruption.
That’s Amy Cappellazzo, formerly of Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses; she recently co-founded a firm called Art Intelligence Global.
CAPPELLAZZO: A massive amount of information available today that was not available 20, 30 years ago, even 10 years ago.
But it’s not just information.
CAPPELLAZZO: Technology has also affected channels of distribution. During this whole time in Covid, auction houses, galleries have been managing to transact and sell things without people actually physically getting in front of them. That’s new and astonishing because one would think a work of art needs to be seen in person to fully understand and appreciate it. If that were not the case, I would just cut pictures out of magazines and tape them to my walls, but obviously there’s something about the real thing that’s more satisfying and more interesting.
Satisfying and interesting perhaps but also — let’s be honest — more exclusive. One simple reason an original piece of artwork can be so expensive is that it’s unique. That said, to Cappellazzo’s point, online art sales did set a record in 2020: $12.4 billion, double the previous year. Online sales now make up 25 percent of the total art market. So if you are an old-school gallery operator — even one of the most successful in the world — these numbers will catch your attention.
David ZWIRNER: All of a sudden, this whole world has opened up for us.
That’s David Zwirner, one of the most prominent art dealers in the world. He recently launched a separate business, called Platform.
ZWIRNER: Platform is the marketplace. And it’s a marketplace that came about last year somewhat spontaneously when everything was shut down.
Platform is a hub for independent galleries to sell a curated selection of works at relatively low prices: $2,500 to $50,000. Zwirner takes a 20-percent commission on each sale.
ZWIRNER: We realized that we had a pretty robust website that was able to communicate to a large audience. And many of the young colleagues — dealers — didn’t have anything of that sort. So we invited international galleries to show artworks on our website that we helped sell for them.
Unlike the typical gallery model, anyone can buy the art for sale on Platform — there is no “beauty contest,” as Magnus Resch put it. In fact, it’s the opposite of a beauty contest — as David Zwirner discovered during the 2020 presidential campaign. In normal times, Zwirner would vet potential buyers ahead of time and, if they somehow made the cut, he’d follow up afterwards to add them to his roster of collectors. But on Platform, during the pandemic:
ZWIRNER: We did a fundraiser for Biden-Harris, but we were then told that we were actually not allowed to speak to any of the buyers. That’s against campaign finance law. The buying has to happen automatically. We scratched our heads and said, “What do we do now?” We created a buy-now, e-commerce site just for our Artists for Biden initiative, and that was a ridiculous success. I’m not allowed to say how many millions we raised, but it was millions.
DUBNER: So your commercial practice was totally changed because of the political involvement.
ZWIRNER: Very interesting. Because all of us were like, what do you mean? We need to talk to the buyers. That’s what we’ve always done. And then we realized we can’t. That taught me the lesson that there is a buying public out there that doesn’t want to talk to me and that there is a much bigger public out there than I had realized.
DUBNER: Okay, so you mentioned that Platform is having other galleries come on to a site that you run. Here’s what your archrival Larry Gagosian says about Platform. “I wouldn’t be interested in doing something like that. It’s a little bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing. My advice to smaller galleries would be to preserve your own identity and brand. Even if you can’t do it at the level of a large gallery, work within your means and don’t hand over your artists and client lists to somebody who might take advantage of it at some point. The somebody is plainly David Zwirner.” So how do you respond to that fear-mongering?
ZWIRNER: I would say it takes one to know one, right? I appreciate that he’s looking at what we’re doing, because it is an innovation in our industry and it’s good. The point is not at all to steal artists from younger galleries. It’s an absurd assertion here. The point is to create a marketplace where young galleries that have a harder time reaching large audiences can present their work.
There’s one more benefit that a market like Platform may offer.
ZWIRNER: So we have a pretty big climate problem out there, right? And one of the drivers of our industries, the art fairs, have pretty, pretty complicated carbon footprints. And also very capital-intense, especially for young galleries. If you’re a young gallery on the Lower East Side, and you have to take your wares to London, it’s going to be expensive. And if you want to take a chance on a young artist, let’s say you want to do a one-person presentation — if nobody buys anything, and that happens often, you might be looking at a hole that you might not be able to fix. So Platform gives you a much, much more user-friendly way to present your work.
So does a platform like Platform mean the art market is looking to abandon the elite status it has spent centuries cultivating? You might think that, if you squint hard enough. On the other hand, let’s not kid ourselves. For quite a while now, major works of art have been what investors like to call an “asset class.” Here’s what the economist Canice Prendergast told us in an earlier episode in this series:
PRENDERGAST: Maybe 90 percent of the art that’s sold sits in a warehouse, rather than actually being seen by somebody.
And some unknown share of that 90 percent is part of a gray and black market that uses high-end artwork for money laundering, tax evasion, and related escapades. In a recent episode we did about corruption in China, the political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang told us that art is often preferred to cash when it comes to paying bribes:
Yuen Yuen ANG: Because art is valuable, but the value is subjective. And so in the event that a corrupt official is arrested, he could defend himself by saying, “Well, it’s just a useless piece of Van Gogh,” or something like that.
There are other, more legitimate efforts to treat art like an asset class. Consider the investing platform called Masterworks. It is privately held and is valued at more than $1 billion.
GOLOVINA: Masterworks is the first platform to take a painting public, effectively.
That’s Masha Golovina, head of acquisitions for Masterworks.
GOLOVINA: We securitize artworks by filing them with the S.E.C. as public offerings. And we make those available to retail investors, which means that anybody can invest.
This may have the whiff of democratization, but you get the sense the shift is more subtle than that. A shift, perhaps, from the billionaire class to the investor class.
GOLOVINA: We focus on the most expensive segment of the art market. Ninety percent of transactions are estimated to be below a million dollars. We focus on paintings that are $1 to $30 million. We buy from auction, and we also buy privately from the auction houses. And then we speak to dealers, and also individual collectors and collecting families that we have relationships with. I’m on calls probably four hours a day to source paintings for the company.
Golovina herself studied art history and economics, worked in banking for a time, and then at Christie’s auction house.
GOLOVINA: I would say 99 percent of the 180,000 people signed up on the platform have no experience in the market prior to signing up with us. Most of our investors come to Masterworks looking for alternative investments. You know, telling their friends about having invested in a Basquiat or a Keith Haring, is much sexier than talking about a real-estate investment.
So investors buy a share in a particular painting that Masterworks has bought either privately or at a public auction. The idea is that the painting will appreciate over time, which means investors’ shares will also appreciate, and the profits are locked in when Masterworks ultimately sells the painting. But what happens in the interim — I mean, what happens to the actual painting that Masterworks has bought?
GOLOVINA: Once we acquire the paintings, our No. 1 priority is the physical well-being, the condition of the painting. So they’re stored in a fine-art storage facility. However, we do loan paintings as we see fit. We’ve loaned several of our paintings out to museums in Europe. But the majority of the paintings we have are housed in a fine-art storage facility.
“A fine-art storage facility.” Other people might call it something different.
PRENDERGAST: Maybe 90 percent of the art that’s sold sits in a warehouse.
If you care even a little bit about the art, you have to ask yourself: is this how the art market should be operating? Putting the most desirable artwork in the world into storage — is that a desirable outcome?
Coming up: are there any new technologies that might really democratize the art world?
PRENDERGAST: Many of the N.F.T.s have one very desirable feature, which is that it can be shown anywhere by anybody.
And remember, this is the third part of our three-part series called “The Hidden Side of the Art Market.” If you haven’t listened to the others, they are ready and waiting for you to hear them. They are episode numbers 484 and 485. You can get all past episodes of Freakonomics Radio, for free, on any podcast app — as well as the other shows in the Freakonomics Radio Network. So, get busy.
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We’ve been talking about how technology is disrupting the art market in a variety of ways. If you’d like the most pointed example of this, consider what happened at Christie’s auction house on March 11, 2021. An artwork sold that day for more than $69 million. It was the third-highest price ever fetched at auction for a living artist. The top two living artists are Jeff Koons and David Hockney. Them, you’ve probably heard of. I am confident you haven’t heard of this third artist. You ready? His name is Mike Winkelman. Maybe you do recognize the name under which he makes art: it’s Beeple. The $69 million piece Beeple created is called Everydays: The First 5,000 Days. Aside from the price, there were two extraordinary things about the sale. The first is that Everydays isn’t a physical piece of art — it’s not a sculpture or a painting or an array of fluorescent light fixtures. It’s a digital artwork, a collage of thousands of images that Beeple had been posting online everyday for more than a decade. It’s quite beautiful. The other extraordinary thing about the piece is that it’s an N.F.T. or nonfungible token. That means it was created via the blockchain, the digital ledger you’ve heard so much about — and likely still don’t quite understand. For what it’s worth, we are working on a future episode about that — what the blockchain can do for you. But that’s for another day. The Beeple N.F.T. was bought by a pair of Indian blockchain entrepreneurs, using Ethereum, one of the many currencies that are also created on the blockchain, the most famous of these being Bitcoin. The New York Times headline from the Christie’s auction reads like one of those headlines you’ll look back on 50 years from now and chuckle: “JPG File Sells for $69 Million, as ‘N.F.T. Mania’ Gathers Pace.” So, what is an N.F.T.?
SCHACHTER: Well, I mean, an N.F.T. can be anything — it could be a painting, it could be a photograph of a painting — anything that’s on your iPhone camera roll. In fact, I made a comment that everyone and their grandmother is going to be selling N.F.T.s now and then I ended up making an N.F.T. of my grandmother and sold her. I think I let her go a little bit too cheaply.
That’s Kenny Schachter.
SCHACHTER: I am an artist, a writer, a professor, and a curator. And I sell art also to make a living.
DUBNER: If you had to describe the Kenny Schachter brand, how would you describe it?
SCHACHTER: Pain in the ass? Troublemaker? For me, it’s just one thing. Art — art, art, art.
The digital image Kenny Schachter made of his grandmother, Blanche, went for a few thousand dollars. Other N.F.T.s have brought substantially higher prices — video clips of LeBron James playing basketball; the first tweet from Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey. But it isn’t just cultural curiosities that have been selling — it’s contemporary art, too. And many of those N.F.T.s are being sold by artists working without gallery representation. In the first half of 2021, digital art — N.F.T.s as well as film and video art — made up 12 percent of all art sales.
SCHACHTER: It’s not the traditional art-world collectors that were fueling the market. The audience of buyers for this N.F.T. world are tech people that have already been well attuned and comfortable living in technology. And these people don’t know Larry Gagosian, the world’s biggest art dealer, or David Zwirner. Not only do they not know who these people are, they don’t aspire to know who these people are. They don’t care who these people are.
There is a caveat. N.F.T.s are typically bought and sold with Ethereum, a cryptocurrency that has risen steeply in value, like many other cryptocurrencies. But: there hasn’t been much you can actually buy with Ethereum outside of Ethereum-generated N.F.T.s.
SCHACHTER: Imagine you had all this cash and there was no Bloomingdale’s. And then all of a sudden a department store opened, and you could buy 7,000 cashmere sweaters with this wealth that had just mushroomed. So that’s really what happened. There’s this crazy pent-up wealth where hundreds and hundreds of millions into the billions of dollars have been created virtually from thin air. But there’s been nothing to spend it on. Then all of a sudden in 2018 comes the N.F.T. market, whether it’s for collectibles, for moments of sports, and there’s a torrent of pent-up demand that’s just exploded.
You can imagine how the circular nature of this type of transaction might cave in on itself eventually. But if you look at the art market as a whole, there are a number of other functions that N.F.T.s might serve. Here, again, is the economist Canice Prendergast.
PRENDERGAST: Many of the N.F.T.s have one very desirable feature, which is that it can be shown anywhere by anybody. You can download it, you can show it. It’s trying to democratize art in a way that happens very rarely.
DUBNER: And you like that?
PRENDERGAST: I do. Blockchain, on the other hand, I feel like, is swatting a fly with a hammer.
And our other art-economist friend Magnus Resch:
RESCH: Digital art has historically been absolutely irrelevant. Nobody bought digital art. That’s why it’s so good that right now, digital art is really getting the recognition that they deserve. Right now, it’s cool to be a digital artist. Then you can actually make some money. Will it be lasting and will we see a new record price for a digital artwork, N.F.T.? I highly doubt that. Will digital artworks be the new paintings? I also doubt that.
But, Resch says, on balance:
RESCH: It’s a good development.
And museums are paying attention too.
Glenn LOWRY: Our stance is that we’re seriously interested in how the N.F.T. world works.
That’s Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
LOWRY: It wouldn’t surprise me if we started doing some pilot projects to see how good a fit the minting of N.F.T.s would be for us.
DUBNER: I saw that the Uffizi is creating N.F.T.s from some of its masterpieces, they recently sold a Michelangelo N.F.T. for $170,000. I would think if this were a priority for your museum, MoMA, that your collection is full of potentially billions of dollars’ worth of N.F.T.s.
LOWRY: At the moment, I’m as interested in them from a cultural perspective as I am from the point of view of their marketability. I am interested in the way in which they might help institutions make their collections more widely accessible. And at the same time, create new communities of users, and generate some capital along the way — although the capital for me isn’t the single most important driver in the way in which N.F.T.s can operate.
DUBNER: Right. But since you and I are friends now, Glenn, I’m sure that if you decide to do some, let’s say Matisse N.F.T.s, that you’ll give me first shot.
LOWRY: Absolutely. As long as you agree to match Beeple’s $69 million, we’re in.
There’s one more way in which N.F.T.s, or other digital tools, may revolutionize the art market. In Part 2 of this series, we discussed how artists rarely profit when their work is resold at auction, often at prices much higher than they were originally paid. There have been some attempts to remedy this in the form of artists’ royalty laws, but such laws are rare and, when they do exist, they’re hard to enforce. N.F.T.s could change at least the last part of that equation. Here, again, is Kenny Schachter.
SCHACHTER: So N.F.T.s are issued in Ethereum because you can state the parameters. It’s like a digital certificate of authenticity, which also trades as a currency. What differentiates Ethereum from Bitcoin is that Ethereum has a programmable smart contract that piggybacks on the currency itself. In the past, you would buy, like, Dan Flavin made sculptures out of fluorescent light fixtures. With that sculpture, you would get a certificate of authenticity, the artist would sign the piece of paper and it would say, “You have this piece called X, Y, Z from 1962, and it’s an edition of three. And it is the evidence of your ownership.” Very often, people would have the sculpture on their wall for 20 years, 30 years, and they would lose the certificate because it was just a sheet of paper. So now this whole notion has been turned on its head, where the certificate of authenticity is what’s embedded into the blockchain for perpetuity. This empowers artists to take back control, away from the traditional gallery system, and it enables the artists themselves to have more of a say in the commercialization of their art.
Many other markets have already been disrupted by the blockchain, the internet, the digital revolution generally. Long-standing frictions have begun to be eliminated. Just think about something as simple as how you order a food delivery, or how you buy books (if you still buy books) or whatever you buy on Amazon. The art market, as we’ve been hearing throughout this series, has so much friction — much of it intentional, or at least self-inflicted — that it’s plainly ripe for disruption. And there’s one last change worth mentioning.
CAPPELLAZZO: We’ve had a massive geographic disruption.
Amy Cappellazzo again.
CAPPELLAZZO: This used to be largely an American and European event. But truthfully now, it’s a global marketplace and Asia is just a huge and enormous participant.
DUBNER: It sounds like you’re talking about the buy side, but what about artists as well?
CAPPELLAZZO: Well, more Asian artist markets are getting their due. We’ve had all sorts of historical corrections for women, for artists of color, for all sorts of things that correspond with larger cultural sentiments these days, which has, in my mind, been a net positive thing, for sure. It goes a little bit both ways. You have a very thirsty audience in Asia wanting masterworks. And as a net result, there’s a little bit more interest in the West, in what are the important artists from the ’80s in China, or the ’50s in Japan, or the Dansaekhwa Movement in the ’70s in Korea?
DUBNER: Amy, let me ask, if you could own any one piece of art and if neither money nor history nor maybe a museum already owning it were a barrier, what would it be?
CAPPELLAZZO: Well, I will tell you that my feeling on this topic changes frequently. Like, of late, I’d love to own a great Basquiat, like a masterpiece of Basquiat would really speak to me, my time in New York, the short-lived genius of this person that just hit on exactly — Basquiat’s existence gives meaning to, like, BLM and everything we’re going through, right? He is the visual representation of that. Basquiat understood in his short lifetime that people loved Black culture more than they loved Black people. He’s just a cipher of so many things, and like a god. There are moments where I feel moody and contemplative, where I think having a Rothko would be among the most soothing things I could do for myself.
DUBNER: So does this mean you don’t own a Rothko or a Basquiat?
CAPPELLAZZO: Oh, no, I don’t own either of them. I did have chances to buy Basquiat drawings and I tried to bid on them, but they got away from me and probably they’re too expensive for me to ever consider owning now. But I do love them.
DUBNER: I’m sorry.
CAPPELLAZZO: It’s a little bit like unrequited love. Like, it’s hard, but yeah.
DUBNER: Let me just promise that if I ever somehow walk into someone’s house and there’s a Basquiat or a Rothko and I think I can get out with it under my coat, I’m going to grab it for you.
CAPPELLAZZO: Okay. I just don’t want to own something that’s stolen. But I appreciate that, thanks.
Meanwhile, back up in Boston, Dr. James Dineen has had the fortune of living with a piece of art he truly loves — the portrait of him that Alice Neel painted in that New Jersey backyard. Alice Neel, whose work never sold for much when she was alive — but now, in death, is having her moment. What does James Dineen think about Alice Neel’s posthumous second act?
DINEEN: She would be much more interested in the impact of her paintings on people’s behavior, not the commercial side. She was really a pioneer. Just way ahead of her time, and she clearly embraced people who were poor and not famous.
And here’s Alice Neel herself, from an interview a few months before she died.
NEEL: I could have been a great psychiatrist. But it’s more fun being an artist. I see what’s there. I don’t look for anything, I just look.
Neel then recalls going to see a show of Paul Cézanne paintings years earlier, at the Metropolitan Museum.
NEEL: And I was surprised at all the psychological acumen that his portraits had. He said, “I love to paint people who have grown old naturally in the country.” And I say, “I love to paint people torn to shreds by the rat race in New York.”
Now that Alice Neel herself has had a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, and now that some of her paintings have sold for millions of dollars, is James Dineen tempted to sell the last painting she made?
DINEEN: It doesn’t tempt me to sell it. It tempts me to remind the six children that we have that this is perhaps valuable and I would hope they would probably sell it and donate the proceeds to some charity that Alice would embrace. That would be my hope. I don’t want them to think of this as a gold mine that they can harvest and then buy a bigger condo or whatever, which is not a necessary part of life.
He and his family have talked about the painting in his bedroom.
DINEEN: And the family keeps kidding me about, “You should be getting it insured and you should be doing this and that.” We did have somebody from Skinner’s come by and look at it and confirm it and appraise it and everything else.
Skinner is an auction house. But James Dineen wasn’t moved.
DINEEN: I like it in my bedroom, and I don’t at all get excited about the commercial value. It’s the experience. The memory is where its value is. You know, life is really the summation of all your experiences and memories. And this is one of the great ones.
It’s been said that an economist is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. As we’ve explored the art market over these past few episodes, it’s been tempting to think that the same holds true there. But as James Dineen proves, there are exceptions. I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to this special series, “The Hidden Side of the Art Market.” We certainly enjoyed making it. Thanks to all the artists, economists, gallerists, museum folks, and others who spoke with us.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Jacob Clemente. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman and Jeremy Johnston. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; the rest of the music this week was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
James Dineen, primary care internist at the Massachusetts General Hospital.
Kelly Baum, curator of contemporary art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Canice Prendergast, professor of economics at the University of Chicago.
Magnus Resch, lecturer in art entrepreneurship at the Yale School of Management.
Amy Cappellazzo, co-founder of Art Intelligence Global and former chairman of the global fine arts division at Sotheby’s.
Masha Golovina, head of acquisitions for Masterworks.
Kenny Schachter, art writer, curator, and dealer.
David Zwirner, owner of David Zwirner Gallery.
Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art.
“Zwirner May Disrupt Art Gallery Model With Click-to-Buy Business,” by Robin Pogrebin (The New York Times, 2021).
“The Uffizi Gallery Just Sold a Michelangelo NFT for $170,000, and Now Is Quickly Minting More Masterpieces From Its Collection,” by Artnet News (Artnet News, 2021).
“JPG File Sells for $69 Million, as ‘NFT Mania’ Gathers Pace,” by Scott Reyburn (The New York Times, 2021).
“As Money Launderers Buy Dalís, U.S. Looks at Lifting the Veil on Art Sales,” by Graham Bowley (The New York Times, 2021).
“Are NFTs the Next Tulip Bubble? Kenny Schachter Doesn’t Care — and He Sold His Own Grandma on the Crypto Web to Prove It,” by Kenny Schachter (Artnet News, 2021).
The Art Market 2021, by Clare McAndrew (An Art Basel & U.B.S. Report, 2021).
“The Contemporary Art Rush,” by Artprice (Artprice Report 2020, 2020).
“The 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” by the National Endowment for the Arts (2018).
“‘Shazam for Art’ Yanked from App Store After Data Theft Controversy,” by Claire Voon (Hyperallergic, 2016).
Management of Art Galleries, by Magnus Resch (2013).
“Leo the Lion,” by Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker, 2010).
The Price Database, by Artnet.
“‘I’ve Been Working My Ass Off for You to Make that Profit?’ (Ep. 485),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
“‘A Fascinating, Sexy, Intellectually Compelling, Unregulated Global Market.’ (Ep. 484),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
“Is the U.S. Really Less Corrupt Than China? (Ep. 481),” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
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