My Take

When the real art is making money

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 4:49am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 5:52am

The art world had a fabulous year with a number of paintings fetching record prices in auctions held around the world. The top 10 lots auction raised US$752.2 million this year, a 27 per cent increase from last year and an 82 per cent jump from 2011, according to Bloomberg.

While it was the well-known names that drew the top dollar, works by some surprising artists also raked in hefty sums. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of China's leading e-commerce giant Alibaba, sold a painting for more than HK$3 million in a charity auction. This was despite a general confusion, at least among the internet users, about what the painting was all about. Guesses ranged from a tai chi symbol to a cup of cappuccino decorated with a swirl of cream.

There was lot more cyber chatter when George Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch volunteer who shot a Miami student, put his painting up for auction on eBay. That one sold for more than US$100,000.

Reports of these sales seldom reveal the artistic qualities of these pieces or their aesthetic value. But the price they fetch makes headlines and in a world where the bottom-line is always money, that's not surprising.

American artist JSG Boggs was different. It was easy to put a value on his works as he mostly painted currency notes. He would draw artworks on one side of a ten or 100 dollar bill when he wanted to buy something worth that much, but never give the work to collectors. Instead he would give the trader's name to collectors to go and fetch it off them. He was arrested for counterfeiting in England and Australia in the 1980s but was acquitted on both occasions. Finally, in the 1990s, the US authorities raided his home and seized all his artworks though he was never convicted of counterfeiting.

Spanish artist Salvador Dali better understood the worth of his artworks. He used to go into restaurants and throw fabulous parties for large groups and in the end pay by cheque. But he scribbled a drawing on the back of the cheque before handing it over to the restaurant owner, knowing full well they wouldn't cash it and his money would remain safe in the bank.

One wonders if a doodle by Jack Ma or George Zimmerman will ever get them a free meal.