Money is an easy way to determine the value an artwork because it is quantitative. If someone pays more, the work must be better.
On Friday, May 4th Edvard Munch’s pastel painting “The Scream” sold in an auction at Sotheby’s for almost $120 million. The piece has become an icon since it was executed in 1895 by the Expressionist painter and has set the record (according to the Huffington Post as the most expensive pastel painting ever sold at auction. Munch created four versions of the piece and the other three are all in museums.
What does it mean?
$120,000,000 is a lot of money. Wikipedia has a list of the most valuable paintings ever sold at auction and says that Paul Cezanne’s piece “The Card Players” sold for $250 million in 2011. 19th Century artists, Renaissance painters, and a few Abstract Expressionists seem to receive the highest prices at auction. Works on canvas garner the highest prices so it is noteworthy that a pastel would receive so much attention. I will talk about the impact of the medium in the reception of the artwork in a later blog post, but today I am discussing value.
None of these artists are alive to see that patrons are willing to “put their money where their mouth is.” How much someone is willing to pay is an important consideration in valuing artworks, but what does it mean in the big picture? In what ways can we recognize that an artwork is important?
Price, Reputation, Traffic
“The Scream” has been widely appropriated for advertising campaigns and cartoons since it was first unveiled. By avoiding the specifics to be abstract a feeling, it becomes a universal expression of pain. Everyone can identify with the psychological agony being expressed. Because it is well known by non-art audiences, and it is represented in all the art history books, it is highly valued.
Even when a price has never been set we can understand that a work is extremely valuable. The “Mona Lisa” comes to mind. When it was assessed in 1962, the painting was valued at $100 million which would be equivalent to $720 million in 2011. It is unlikely to be sold so we may never know what it is worth, however.
The value of an artwork can only be determined long after it was created. Art can be important because it
- Breaks new ground that provides new directions for subsequent artists
- It is an unusually good example of a particular medium, technique, or subject matter as it was used at a particular time
- Resonates emotionally or intellectually with viewers
Those are the qualities that will make it memorable. The selling price may not really measure its value, however.