What is art worth? That’s a good question in the art world where nothing is objective. ‘Money. Power. Beauty’ – the subtitle of the book reflects its structure. Michael Findlay looks into the subject from three different angles and exploits the trope of Three Graces – Thalia, Euphrosyne and Aglaea. ‘Their combined function was to preside over banquets to entertain the gods and their guests. Each has unique qualities, and I appropriated their names to illustrate that the value of art has three components. Thalia is the goddess of fruitfulness and abundance, representing Commerce. Euphrosyne is the goddess of joy; she represents Society. Aglaea is the goddess of beauty, which, being in the eye of the beholder, is the Essential (or intrinsic) value of art.’ 

 

Commerce  Michael Findlay tells us how the art world works and his knowledge of the art market arcana is impressive. How it has changed over the years shows this example – in 1968 a painting by John Baldessari hanging behind Findlay’s desk was priced at $12,000 and there was nobody who wanted to buy it. In 2007 it was purchased at Christie’s auction for $4.4 million. What exactly makes a specific work of art valuable? Findlay provides us with many details and anecdotes on the mechanisms of the primary and secondary markets are. We learn what influences the prices and when they fly high. There are many practical tips like which elements (and documents) should a buyer pay attention to when purchasing works. Findlay also exposes marketing tricks that do make difference, used massively by auction houses, galleries, art fairs and artist themselves. The informative portion of facts shows how many factors take part in the creation of the commercial values of work of art. 

Society  Many art events like openings, art fairs continue to thrive as social tsunamis, to use the author’s words. He puts on display the social life of artistic spheres – for instance why collectors are keen on socializing with artists, hosting dinner parties at home or creating personal museums.  Findlay is excellent in summing up complex relations between the art world players. The author claims that ideally interest in art starts with a social experience.

‘If we were lucky enough to have had parents or teachers who managed to convey a genuine enthusiasm for art to us at an early stage, it is possible that regardless of what we do for a living or whether we can afford to collect art for ourselves, we are unafraid to duck into any museum or gallery and find something to enjoy.’ Even if you were less fortunate, there is definitely no need to fear that you don’t have knowledge to understand art. Why? Look Part III. 

Essential value  How do we derive the meaning of art? How to experience it if we’re bombarded with images each time you look around? How to let it speak if we’re constantly overinformed? How to focus on any work if we’re distracted by so called technological innovations (how many times have you glimpsed on your smartphone while reading this…)? Well, there is a simple cure to that. Put aside nuisances of art market, sales that made the front pages, the zillionairs. Have a look at work of art and look long and well in order to absorb the essential value. 

Michael Findlay’s insightful book gives a great overview of the art market rules and even if you know something about this game, it’s quite interesting to read. The author is fully aware of the power that money wields in the world of art, explains its mechanisms readily and illustrates them with many stories from his own career. Most of the works mentioned in the text are pictured, which makes reading pleasant, just like a handy format. It is indeed, as quoted on the cover, one of the best books ever published on the art world.

The Value of Art, Michael Findlay, Prestel