The Supermodel and the Brillo Box is a new book by economist Don Thompson, author of the successful The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. Written in the same engaging style, and centred around the same theme, namely What are the reasons behind extreme prices at the highest levels of contemporary art?, the new book takes off where the previous one ended: on the threshold of the 2008 financial crash.

Don Thompson writes not just about facts and economic factors, but also digs into many personal stories of major collectors, artists, dealers and auction houses, shedding light on how they all form a part of the bigger picture. However the author does not pretend to be able to explain everything. He often states that he cannot exactly define why an artwork is worth 9 or 8 figures instead of 6 or 5 – the factors are variable and in constant evolution. He is also critical about the popular notion that contemporary art is a great investment by demonstrating that a moderate-risk bond portfolio is likely to give you a much more favourable return. Here’s a cross section of key topics throughout the book, ready to be casually dropped in conversation at your next cocktail party.

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An artwork is like a chocolate truffle

Did you know that when a collector is shown an artwork available for sale at a price he can afford, his brain reacts in the same way as when he is shown a chocolate truffle? But neurological research aside, artworks also come with a “job-to-be-done” says Don Thompson. As other luxury goods and symbols of wealth and power, it needs to fulfil numerous other roles than just the functional and the esthetic ones.

Every sale needs a good back story

We all love good storytelling and an artwork that comes with an outstanding story is all the more cherished. Thompson describes how provenance (former celebrity owner is a jackpot), direct link to political activism or even just a clever title (what if  The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living was just called Shark?) add to the value of an artwork as much as its formal aesthetics. Famous New York dealer – and Larry Gagosian’s mentor– Leo Castelli said that one of his responsibilities is “myth-making of myth material”.

The trouble with authentication

With prices for contemporary art going berserk, authentication became a powerful yet risky business, with its own particularities. While in the US the Andy Warhol Authentication Board ceased activities after being sued by wrathful collectors one too many times, Europe gives the “moral” authentication rights to the artists’ legal heirs. How that functions in case of widow being asked to authenticate an artwork donated to her late husband’s female companion, we leave to your imagination. 

Not all collectors are equal

The book takes a very small slice of the art market and as such also a small slice of the collectors. But even this restricted group comes with different flavours: some collect for gain and power (Mugrabi), others out of passion (The Vogels, Sandretto Re Rebaudengo), or combining both aspects at once (Saatchi). Now what is your motivation?

The art market is a beauty contest

With so much buzz around the investment potential of contemporary art, Thompson argues that collecting can be seen as a “Keynesian beauty contest“. Consequently, astute collectors/investors do not choose art based on purely their own taste but also on what they think will be liked by others.

For the called are many and the chosen are few

You might feel daunted facing Thompson’s tough statistical evidence of the limited chance of becoming famous (and make a 6-figure income) as an artist. Fret not thyself – for at least the ways to reach the top are truly diverse: “some have become successful and generated high prices for being great at drawing or coloration, for being innovative or controversial, or just for being celebrities…“.

The Überdealer as the creator of new values

Similar to the artists’ fate, only a handful of galleries have been able to take full advantage of the contemporary art boom of the recent years. Without surprise, Gagosian is mentioned as the overlord and his model as the most successful and scalable approach to the current market. The book gives few signs of hope for the mainstream dealer, other than working with early career artists… until Larry picks them up. Or not.

There’s – a little bit of – life outside of NY and London

The contemporary art world might have become globalised, but at the end it all comes back to where the money and the power is: New York and London. This goes for galleries as well as for the artists they represent. The Middle East (Abu Dhabi and Quatar) and China (Bejing) are the new kids on the block, honoured with their share of branded art fairs and gallery outposts.

The digital infancy of the art market

Although there have been multiple trials in selling art over the internet, few have become mainstream. In Thompson’s view the “online” aspect has mainly worked for mid market art and for print editions while initiatives that tried to reach the top of the market (e.g. the VIP Art Fair) didn’t manage to break through. Artsy, which is more focused on helping people discover art, appears as one of the rare winners. (On the one hand, we agree with Thompson’s analysis that selling online, especially high-end artworks, will remain limited. On another hand, digital innovations that focus on facilitating the current art processes and transactions are gaining momentum. Think of ArtBinder – an app that allows galleries to show their inventory on tablet and mobile. It has already signed up most important galleries, as we noticed during the last Frieze Fair. Ed.)

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It is fascinating to discover stories behind the biggest sales of the last 6 years and to peek into the top-echelons of the art world. Don’t forget to keep in mind ‘though, that you really are reading about a tiny elite segment. That goes for the artists (Cattelan, Murakami, Hirst, Weiwei), for the dealers and auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Gagosian, Pace, Hauser & Wirth…), as well as for the collectors that pay the astronomic prices (Abramovich, Brand, Mugrabi & Co).

The Supermodel and the Brillo Box is a must-read for contemporary art enthusiasts. It describes an art world seen through the eyes of an economist, so there is more attention to value and value creation that to creative process, art theory or aesthetics. It is an original view and one that rarely gets so well expressed – and that is makes this book unique.

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The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: back stories and peculiar economics from the world of contemporary art is available through the publisher’s website, at selected retailers and on amazon.

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