Add contemporary art to the long list of topics that have been illuminated by economics research. Don Thompson of York University, Toronto has studied this market and in his new book, “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”, examines why art prices reach such staggering heights. Just weeks ago, Damien Hirst auctioned his “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” collection for nearly two hundred million dollars: enough to buy 272,108 metric tons of rice. Professor Thompson graciously agreed to an interview:
What made you study economics in the first place?
It was probably one of those undergraduate surprises; I took a micro course, enjoyed it, took a course in European Economic History and loved it, took a macro course, and launched on a career.
Has being an economist changed the way you appreciate art?
No, you still lust after art that touches your soul that, you want to live with and wake up to. However, knowing the prices of art affects how you look at it, particularly in a contemporary art museum. The “if one like that sold for $20 million there must be something there I haven’t seen, I’ll look harder and reach hard” syndrome is hard to avoid.
Is the economics of contemporary art like other areas of economics, or did you have to build it from the ground up?
I spent a year working on The $12 Million Stuffed Shark because I did not understand how artists got selected to rise to the highest levels (being sold in Sotheby’s or Christie’s evening contemporary auctions), or why prices were 10 or 100 times what seemed reasonable in the absence of scarcity. And because of my profession and personal curiosity, I wanted to learn more.