Today, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal: Sunset at Montmajour, thought for a century to be a fake, turns out to be a real Van Gogh! New technology in paint analysis confirmed that the pigments used in Sunset were the same as those taken from Van Gogh’s palette in Arles, the southern-France town where the artist is believed to have painted the work.
The painting had been passed from owner to owner, selling for very little each time. It spent over 50 years lying in an attic. It underwent several reassessments, but each concluded that Sunset was no Van Gogh. Now, though, it’ll serve as a lead act at the prestigious Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam—one of the very museums that had called it a fake several decades earlier! Its value hasn’t been assessed, but Sunset could be worth well over 50 million dollars.
This entire situation prompts a serious reevaluation of what creates value in art. The most obvious answer is beauty, but Sunset clearly invalidates this hypothesis! Before the painting’s recent reevaluation, it looked no less beautiful. After its reevaluation, though, it’ll be sitting in the spotlight, not in the attic! So what does create value in art?
Rarity creates value in art. Van Gogh’s paintings are extremely rare; only a few hundred exist today. Meanwhile, paintings by other no-name Dutch impressionists are a dime a dozen. But wait: rarity can’t be sufficient for value either. Fingerprints are also very rare, as are snowflakes. But you don’t see my fingerprint gracing any art museums. Rarity alone can’t be enough. An even more glaring rebuttal to this argument: if Van Gogh’s paintings are rare, so would have been the paintings of Sunset’s creator were it not Van Gogh! After all, someone painted the Sunset of Montmajour, whether it was Vincent Van Gogh or his lowly apprentice. Even if the apprentice had painted it, Sunset, as well as the apprentice’s other paintings, would be just as rare as those of Van Gogh himself. So, just as the painting didn’t change in beauty after its reevaluation, it didn’t change in rarity either.
Fame creates value in art. Van Gogh was famous; his apprentice wasn’t. It’s as simple as that! Right? But fame alone won’t create value either. I wouldn’t pay much to see Charlie Chaplin’s paintings, just like I wouldn’t pay to see Van Gogh’s comedy. (Van Gogh was a severely-depressed, paranoid, schizophrenic alcoholic—what a show that would be!) So what’s truly at play?
Really, I think it’s a combination of the three. Here’s how it starts: an artist creates works that are beautiful, not just aesthetically, but also on a mental level: these works challenge the viewer and inspire thought. After creating many such works, the artist achieves fame. Once famous, works by this artist become rare—and not in an arbitrary sense, like the rarity of a fingerprint—but in the sense that works by an artist this famous are extremely hard to come by. Here it is legitimate to divide painters into Van Gogh and other Dutch impressionists—works by the former are much more rare, since the latter artists aren’t famous.
Of course, I just described how it is. But how should it be? In a perfect world, beauty would be the only criterion for art’s value. Assuming both paint equally well, Van Gogh should have no better a chance than his lowly apprentice at seeing his work displayed on center stage.
- Original WSJ article was published At Long Last, van Gogh ‘Fake’ Is Declared Real on September 10, 2013. Written by Clemens Bomdsdorf. The online version of the article can be found here.