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Contemporary art: A terrible investment?

Gallery technicians at Sotheby's auction house stand guard in front of 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch on April 12, 2012 in London, England.

Image of The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art
Author: Don Thompson
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Trade (2014)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

There's more to art museums than "here's a pretty picture that sold for millions of dollars hanging on the wall."

There's also the backstory behind its acquisition-- think: a version of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" and its theft on the first day of the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

Munch's 'The Scream'

The average art viewer, however, probably is just there to look around. But, as Canadian entrepreneur Don Thompson says, that's what makes the economics of art so interesting.

"People like you and me who go to auctions and galleries and don't buy anything are the audience," he says. "And it's the audience that proves that this is a really important production. Think of an auction room with only six people in it. It loses everything."

However entertaining these stories may be, Thompson's new book "The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics From the World of Contemporary Art", says art really isn't a good investment.

"What happens is, the exceptional pieces that sell for ten times the acquisition cost are the ones that get reported on the front page of the New York Times," he said. "All of those works that never resell for their purchase price don't get much publicity."

The adage that artists become famous after they're dead, Thompson says, isn't entirely believable.

"The idea that death raises the value of your work only works for a few branded artists," he said, "because suddenly there's a shortage factor. It doesn't work for 95 percent of artists."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art
Author: Don Thompson
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan Trade (2014)
Binding: Hardcover, 288 pages

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