Review: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson


Book Reviews

Who would possibly pay $12 million for an amateurishly preserved - or rather unpreserved and thus decaying - shark in a formaldehyde tank produced by one of Britain’s leading contemporary artists? If you know think “Yeah, right, who can be so dumb?” you might be surprised to learn that somebody actually did, a person as sane as you and me. But then what is it that makes people spend that much money on something that ridiculous by someone who many people seem to think of as an utter talentless hack? Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art provides the answers for such conundrums, in a way that not only is highly informative but also extremely entertaining.

As it turns out the person who bought the shark makes $12 million in about five days. Seriously, do you care that much about the money you make in five days? But there’s more to it: Do you really think that Gucci handbags and Rolex watches are anything but extremely gaudy object? It’s not taste that makes people buy them, it’s the status that comes along with them. It’s a bit like those people you see in New York City regularly, who carry a shiny Leica camera, openly displayed - taking photographs is not really what they bought those cameras for. And therein, argues Thompson, lies what you need to understand about the kind of art that fetches millions and millions of dollars, often for stuff that the vast majority of the population finds utterly repulsive (and for good reason).

Thompson is an economist, and economists are very good at explaining things that have to do with money and that already happened (as we’ve just learned, they’re not so good at explaining and then preventing things that might happen). So maybe the economist’s eye is the one needed to peek behind the scenes of the contemporary art world. And, indeed, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art is just what you need to read if you don’t understand the state of the art world, and if you wonder why a diamond-encrusted human skull can possibly be great art. Simply don’t think of it as great art, think of it as a status symbol that people pay a lot of money for, because it is produced by a person who has branded himself as one of the most desirable living artists (with the help of one of the savviest art collectors and dealers).

There’s more to The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art than just that, of course. Thompson talks about galleries and their hierarchies, he talks about auction houses, he talks about Andy Warhol and about Jeff Koons, museums, art critics, and (everybody’s favourite topic these days) the future of the art market - it’s a very worthwhile read, and since Thompson doesn’t shy away from quoting the occasional gossip or nasty quip here and there you’ll find yourself highly amused, too.