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Beyond aesthetics: The hype, hollowness of art auctions

By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor

I have never ceased to be alarmed by what I call “the absurdity” that anyone could offer $450 million for just different colors of paint splashed on a piece of cloth called canvas; or an image of some human, animal or other objects carved out of a piece of wood or stone. Four hundred and fifty million dollars! That’s Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” (Saviour of the World) – bought for $450 million in November 2017, shattering the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold.

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Before you dismiss me as one without any sense of art, let me inform you that I am an artist in every sense of that word. Right from childhood, I had been called “Omenkari” which is a dialectical variation of “Omenka” meaning “the artist”. I have always been carving, drawing, and creating beautiful things with my hands. At a certain stage in my life, I became enamoured with writing and has tried in that calling.

Moreover, I had my first university degree in music art. While I was studying music at the Obafemi Awolowo University, I took electives from the Department of Fine Arts. So, if I fail to see a commensurate value in a piece of painting sold for $450 million, it is not because of a lack of sense of art.

Artworks are not alone in my interrogation of intrinsic values in objects. Gold, diamonds, and other so-called precious stones highly valued by humans also come under my query. Beyond being used in the making of stainless jewelry, of what intrinsic values are gold and diamonds that they are sold at such exorbitant prices? Did any of the Pharaoh buried with heavy carats of gold ever return to life?

Let me tell you a story of gold I read from the late Norman Vincent Peale’s Plus, the Magazine of Positive Thinking. I cannot remember all the details but I will make a reconstruction.

Before men ever knew what was gold, a certain miner discovered a small gold deposit in his mining field and brought some nuggets home to a small community where he lived. He approached some jewelry makers in the community and introduced the fine metals to them. The jewelry makers were fascinated seeing that the trinkets they made with the gold remained stainless and very malleable and easy to work on for intricate designs in jewelry.

Within a short time, demand for gold soared in the community and the miner became the richest man in the land because only he knew where to get the gold. With time, abundant wealth bequeathed the miner power, and the power got into his head and he became oppressive, ridding rough shod on everyone, including the leading elites of the community.

People tried to follow the miner whenever he was going to work in efforts to know the source of his gold nuggets but the miner was too crafty and discreet. He succeeded in keeping the source of the gold secret and his wealth continued to grow because all the women in the community demanded gold trinkets from jewelry makers now known as goldsmiths.

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One day, a hunter went to a mountain to hunt and found that little pieces of rocks around the mountain were just like the ones the miner always brought back home as gold. Upon closer examination, he realized he was right and that the rock, of which the entire mountain was made, was the same as the little pieces he had picked. It downed on him that he had discovered a mountain of gold!

Excitedly he took as many pieces of the “rock” as he could carry and hurried home. He went straight to one of the goldsmiths and showed him the pieces of “rocks”. “These are gold. From where did you get these large nuggets?” the goldsmith whispered to the hunter in astonishment. “How much do you want to sell them? I will buy all,” the goldsmith started, warming up for the bargain.

“I don’t want to sell them. You can have them for free,” the hunter said and walked away, leaving the goldsmith’s mouth agape.  The next day, the hunter rented a large cart pulled by two horses and went back to the mountain. With a digger and a crowbar, he broke off large lumps of the gold and filled the cart and made the horses to drag it to the village square. He heaped the gold on the ground and announced to people who had gathered there to help themselves while he returned to the mountain for more gold.

After several trips, people followed him to the mountain and before dusk that day there came to be more gold in the community than anyone needed. People tried to sell their own gold but there was nobody to by it because everyone had gold. Suddenly, gold lost its value!

From this story, we can see that what drove the value of gold in the community was its scarcity, rather than any intrinsic value.

Beyond aesthetics, artworks have become single multi-million dollar notes for rich people to hold their money while growing it. If we can imagine a single $450 million note for instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” is that note.  And it will never depreciate. Like landed property, that artwork, that single mega-denominated currency note, always appreciate.

Valuable artworks that have entered the global art market (even some in the local market) have little or no hiding places. Even when they are stolen, they cannot be publicly auctioned without being identified or discovered. The last buyer of every artwork is always documented in the art market. So stealing a valuable piece of artwork is useless. The question is, where is the thief going to sell it?

Highly priced artworks are also insured against loss resulting from theft, fire, or other types of damage. These tight securities and ability to grow in value make artworks safe investment options for the rich. An artwork auctioned today for a price will surely appreciate, double or even triple in price in the next few years. For instance, “Salvator Mundi”, which was once part of Charles I’s Royal collection, was sold for just £45 in the 1950s, though it was mistaken for a copy.

You may have often heard that paper money or a country’s currency is only a receipt representing the gold in the bank with which that currency is backed. For a highly priced artwork, it is a representation of the amount of money the last buyer paid for it which is deposited in the bank or is in circulation within the global economic system.

But the argument here is that beyond their ornamental or decorative values, gold, diamond, artworks, currencies have no intrinsic values. A piece of enriched Uranium has some intrinsic value because it can be employed in a nuclear reactor where it is used in nuclear fission (the endless bombardment of the nucleus of its atoms) to produce energy. Seeds of corn have intrinsic values too because they can be eaten by human or animals as food or planted to produce more corns. Many plants and animals also have intrinsic values because they can be eaten as foods or harbour substances that can be used in medicines as active ingredients.

Renowned art collector, Otunba Yemisi Syllon argues that the value of artworks is located in the fact they impinge on human minds providing aesthetic enjoyment when viewed. But so does the sight of a setting sun, a hibiscus flower, a beautiful woman, or a landscape of a panoramic golf course. Moreover, all these are live, while a work of art is lifeless. So, if the intrinsic values of artworks for which they are sold for hundreds of millions of dollars are in their ability to impinge on our senses and provide us with aesthetic enjoyment, a live hibiscus flower cultivated on a potable flower vase which produces similar stimulus should also be sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. That a live hibiscus flower cannot be similarity valued is a proof that the issue is not provision of aesthetic enjoyment. The exorbitant value of an artwork is an arbitrarily ascribed value; it has nothing to do with any intrinsic value. However, this art market culture and value system is now a well established one of which little or nothing like the hunter’s discovery of a mountain of gold can run down their values. So, if you have money, you had better go and buy a piece of artwork today, for, in a few years, it can make you one of the richest persons in the world.

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