Merrill Anderson's quarterly Wealth Management newsletter includes a feature on page 4 called Collector's Corner, in which we report on auction results. We cover collectibles, cars, coins, just about anything, including art. I often have trouble understanding the prices.
My wife and I just watched the DVD of the 2007 documentary, My Kid Could Paint That. Two thumbs up, way up, as Siskel and Ebert might say.
The abstract paintings of Marla Olmstead came to the attention of the world when she was just 4 years old. As the documented in the film, she (or her parents) took the art world by storm. Soon her paintings were selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Buyers gushed about the complexity of the work that was, nonetheless, suffused with Marla's inherent innocence.
Were the paintings really that good? Not to my eye—the film is well named. My kid really could paint that, and so could I. But as such, how different is it from the rest of what passes for art today? Really, I'd much prefer a Marla Olmstead in my house to a Jackson Pollack. But I'm a philistine. The film does an excellent job of articulating my skepticism, which is evidently shared by much of the public.
In a stunning proof of the shallowness of "value" or "truth" in modern art, a huge controversy developed over whether Marla was really doing the paintings herself! 60 Minutes did an "expose" that strongly suggested, based upon "hidden camera" footage, that Marla's "best" works had been "polished" by someone else, presumably her father. Paintings that were incredibly valuable if there were really done by a 4-year-old suddenly were worthless if an adult had participated in any way! What an irony—people were paying for the process, not the painting at all! Because, after all, the painting isn't about what is on the canvas?
The Olmsteads proceeded to try to prove that Marla really did do her own work, by videotaping the creation of new paintings from start to finish. You can see examples at their website. The documentary leaves open the question of the "authenticity" of Marla's work, which is to me beside the point. Marla's paintings are still for sale, if not at the stratospheric prices that they once commanded. Wikipedia reports that the painting Marla created for the 60 Minutes hidden camera, the one that child psychologists said proved she was not a prodigy after all, recently sold for $9,000.
But the key point that the film makes without ambiguity is that, at base, modern art is just a fad. Beanie babies for rich people.
Years ago I attended a reception at Sotheby's in New York City during a trust marketing conference. Several of us had trouble reconciling the suggested prices attached to the paintings--the gorgeous old masters seemed way too cheap (at hundreds of thousands of dollars) compared to the millions commanded by some stark, unlovely, downright ugly modern pieces. We corraled a docent and asked him to explain what made a particular piece so valuable.
"Gentlemen," he explained patiently, "there are only two factors that affect the value of a painting. Supply and demand."