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The Actual Reasons Art Sells For So Much

Have you ever looked at a piece of art in a museum and thought, "My kid could make that!"? Just as confounding for art appreciators is why certain pieces sell for so much money. In 2019 alone, the global art market raked in over $64 billion in sales - a 5% decrease from the previous year. 

There are many factors that contribute to how different works of art are valued, but these factors historically boil down to a tangled relationship between artists, collectors, curators, and auction houses. 

Recently, a new avenue for art lovers to amass creative ephemera has emerged, one that has potential to revolutionize the art world: buying digital works on open-sourced blockchains with cryptocurrency. These non-fungible tokens, known as NFTs for short, include JPEGs, GIFs, and videos. 

Like the physical art collectors have been obtaining for centuries, some of these NFTs are selling for millions of dollars. And like high-priced physical art, costly NFTs also have many people scratching their heads and asking, "How could this be so expensive?"

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  • The Artist Was A Historically Significant Figure
    Photo: Leonardo da Vinci / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Artist Was A Historically Significant Figure

    At its most basic level, art appraisal is definitely a name game. Works by recognizable and well-known artists will be valued higher, usually significantly higher, than works by lesser-known creatives. In 2017, Salvator Mundi, a portrait of Jesus Christ who some claim was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci despite doubts of its authenticity, sold for $450 million at a Christie's auction, making it the most expensive painting in history. A decade earlier, two art dealers purchased it at an estate sale in New Orleans for $1,175.

    Sought-after artists have become brands in their own right, marketed by museums and history books as trendsetters, movement-builders, and revolutionaries. The more famous the artist, the more their art will ultimately be worth.

    For decades, masterworks by legendary 20th-century abstract American painters Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock circulated among collectors who casually dropped millions to attain them. When it was discovered some of these pieces are frauds, forged by a Chinese painter named Pei-Shen Qian, their value plummeted immediately - not because they lack aesthetic beauty, but simply because the names "Rothko" and "Pollock" were no longer attached to them.

  • Certain Important Gallery Curators And Art Dealers Claim An Artist’s Work Is Worthy Of Praise And Adoration

    Gallery curators and art dealers play a major role in how works of art are financially assessed, too. These are the people most responsible for driving up the prices of pieces for both living and deceased artists. They accomplish this by acting as tastemakers - voices in the art community who signal which era, style, or movement is in vogue.

    Setting the standard for which art should be praised like this gives galleries control over prices, which in turn helps them gain status as prestigious institutions that only house the best art. Galleries generally refuse to negotiate the prices of the works they display and sell, usually in an effort to achieve price stability in the market and lure in more millionaire collectors. In fact, they will drop an artist whose works don't sell in lieu of accepting a lower bid on a work.

    This business model has created growth in the art world, but growth that only benefits top-end galleries and collectors. Opportunities for emerging artists to find representation in gallery spaces remain few and far between.

  • The Pieces Of Art Are Unique
    Photo: Paul Cezanne / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Pieces Of Art Are Unique

    It seems simple enough: Art collectors prefer to purchase one-of-a-kind, singular pieces whose history and originality have been verified. Prints are always going to be valued less than unique works. The size, medium, and condition of distinct works of art also contribute to their price. Even better is when a piece is connected to a particular style, arises from a popular period, or contains recognizable subject matter.

    Dealers and collectors use the word provenance to describe pieces that are genuine. While some superb forgeries have fallen through the cracks over the years, the global art market prides itself on dealing with unique, authentic objects that move from one established collector to the next.

    In 2012, the royal family of Qatar set a new auction record (one later surpassed by Salvator Mundi) by spending $250 million on a painting by French post-Impressionist virtuoso Paul Cézanne. The painting, Card Players, is one of five in a series studying the movements of its titular figures. Part of what propelled its incredibly high price is the painting's status as a rare, seminal piece desired by museums and collectors all over the world.

  • The Pieces Were Stolen, Thus Increasing Their Value Even More On The Black Market
    Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The Pieces Were Stolen, Thus Increasing Their Value Even More On The Black Market

    The FBI estimates billions of dollars worth of art is stolen every year. The organization even maintains its own extensive database, the National Stolen Art File, which contains thousands of records for treasures pilfered across the globe. Collectors who don't care how the pieces they're after were obtained are willing to pay these thieves millions of dollars on the underground black market for art.

    While it reigned over the Syrian city of Palmyra, ISIS looted dozens of sacred, ancient sites. They even destroyed one of the city's most beloved places: the Temple of Bel. ISIS operatives funded their activities by flooding the black market with invaluable antiquities they acquired during these raids. Many of the private collectors willing to purchase these nicked objects and works of art were European and American.

    In the United States, one of the most brazen art thefts in history occurred at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Posing as police officers, two men were able to gain entry into the museum one evening in 1990, where they got away with $500 million worth of art, including paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer. None of the stolen items have resurfaced since, leading some investigators to believe the cautious heisters involved continue to store them until the opportunity arises to covertly sell them on the black market.