Economics and the value of art

More than a “Veblen good” the recent record auction price for Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” signals that the extraordinarily wealthy have nothing better to do with all of the surplus value that they have captured.

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Les-femmes-dAlger-daprès-Delacroix-XV-Paris-14-Fevrier-1955-huile-sur-toile114-x-146-cm-collection-privée-Europe

Neoclassical economists don’t have a lot to say about the value of art. Basically, they start from the proposition that a work of art, such as Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’),” is often considered to have two different values: an aesthetic or cultural value (its cultural worth or significance) and a price or exchange-value (the amount of money a work of art fetches on the market). They then demonstrate that, within free markets, individual choices ensure that the price of art generally captures or represents all of the various dimensions of value attributable to the work of art, rendering the need for a separate concept of aesthetic or cultural value redundant. Therefore, on their view, Picasso’s painting is “worth” the record auction price of $179.37 million.*

But the Wall Street Journal (gated) observes that yesterday’s sale of other paintings—including Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Yellow and Blue)”—reveals something else:

Some paintings act like object lessons in tracking the global…

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