The Value of Art

by Michael Findlay

Michael Findlay has been an art dealer since 1964.  In this opinionated book he discusses the value of art in three categories: financial value, social value, and essential (or intrinsic) value.

Financial Value

Findlay explains that the market value of a work of art is based on five attributes: provenance, condition, authenticity, exposure, and quality. A key message is that art collectors should buy what they like to look at. Any potential increase in market value is speculation.

He explains that the market is cyclical, and people who view art purely as an investment appear when the market is hot. “There is an adage among old hands in the art world that the emergence of art investment funds signals that a boom is over.”  He points out that more than half of the art market is transacted in private sales. While art funds, art indexes, and art economists claim to analyze the market data, only the auction results are publicly available. “How can one measure and consequently predict activity in a market 52 percent of which is essentially invisible? … I have little faith in crystal balls disguised as charts.”

Findlay points out that auction prices are not a reliable indicator of market value; “an auction result actually represents a unique set of circumstances at a specific point in time.” He cites an example of two similar Picasso pieces sold at auction within months of each other. The first sold for close to $6 million, but the second sold for $1 million less. The author speculates that two collectors were bidding in the first auction, but there was only one buyer left in the second auction, so he purchased for close to the reserve price.

Social Value

“Ideally interest in art starts with a social experience.” The author recalls two contrasting experiences. One day he observed a group of uniformed private-school students in a museum. One student was standing in front of a painting, reciting “a litany of biographical facts and art historical clichés” to a group classmates who looked bored out of their minds. In another case he observed a very excited group of eight-year-olds. The teacher was asking them simple questions: “What do you see? What does it look like? What does it make you think of? How does it make you feel? … The kids were all having great fun competing to express their ideas about the painting… They were completely engaged, fully enthralled… For a properly managed class clustered around a painting or sculpture in a museum, the art can come to life. Reduced to a recitation of facts and other people’s opinions, it can die.”

In the 1960s, one of the author’s clients loaned some art to John Powers, president of Prentice-Hall. After the art was hung in the company cafeteria Powers said, “The effect on morale was great. Overnight I became a convert to the power that art has to move people and bring them together.” The author also explains that a corporate art collection can become “a substantial public relations asset” if it is exhibited and loaned.

Art collectors like to talk about the circumstances of acquiring their art. “When it comes to contemporary art, direct contact with the artist often adds to the price of the work and is of course a social experience with memorable dinner-table conversation value for the buyer.”

Intrinsic Value

The intrinsic value of art is about “the private enjoyment of contemplating the work itself.”

When visiting a museum, the author recommends looking at the art “without wasting time on the labels… Sooner or later something will grab your attention, so stare at it for a good long time, not just five minutes… after twenty minutes things start to happen, and what you thought you knew about the work will start to be replaced by what you are actually seeing.”

“If I look at a work of art and it leaves me cold, what can I hear or read about it that will profoundly change my attitude? If I look at a work of art and I am profoundly moved, what can I hear or read about it that matters more?”

“It is very difficult to use language to describe the intensity of a visceral experience looking at a work of art. Art is itself a language.”

“Painting, sculpture, drawing, and other visual media on the highest level represents the creation of a language that is not read or spoken. It is comprehended with the eyes, the mind, and what we might call the heart, our internal capacity to be deeply moved.”

Findlay, Michael. The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty. Munich: Prestel, 2012. Buy from

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