A replica of “Fountain” (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0) by Marcel Duchamp (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)—Collage by the author
Would you consider putting your own fecal matter up for sale? — Well, someone did, and their product is now regarded as a work of art worth thousands of dollars. Yes, you read that right. A work of art with a soaring price tag, highly-coveted by collectors.
This, of course, begs the question, what is art?
Whereas Oxford-Powered dictionaries define art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power,” other scholarly authorities such as The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argue that whether art can even be defined is a matter of controversy.
Given its lack of a precise definition and the large array of works and disciplines that may or may not fit into it, art, as a concept, has always been a controversial topic. Even today, there is persistent debate on whether certain works — such as video-games — qualify as art.
Naturally, if defining art is complicated, then determining its value is even trickier — this extending, of course, to its market price. Well-known, classical works of art such as the Mona Lisa, for instance, have insurance values of millions of dollars, but then again, so do numerous works of contemporary art —a fact that keeps generating controversy in today’s world.
The following is a list of nine pieces of modern art with price tags and auction values that may seem excessive to the average person, but not to the wealthy connoisseur. Let’s begin.
1. A rock from “The Riverbed” — $17,500
Yoko Ono — Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)
A few years ago, “The Riverbed,” an interactive art installation by Yoko Ono, gained significant attention after one of its many elements — a rock with the handwritten inscription “love yourself” in black ink — was unceremoniously lifted from the Gardiner Museum on March 12th, 2018.
The rock, which had an appraised insurance value of $17,500, was stolen by a middle-aged lady wearing a black outfit and a red scarf who, in the words of Toronto Police officer Gary Long, “just picked it up and walked away with it.”
The crime sparked controversy on the internet, with Twitter users wondering how a rock with two words written on it with a black Sharpie could be so expensive. Some joked about looking for a similar river stone, writing the same inscription on it, and taking the reward money themselves.
2. “Half-Full Glass Of Water” — €20,000
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Is the glass half-full or half-empty? is a common proverb used rhetorically to test a person’s worldview, either as an optimist or a pessimist. Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto, however, took the concept to a more literal level, creating an installation consisting of a half-full glass of water standing on a small wooden shelf.
Conceived and produced in 2006, “Vaso De Agua Medio Lleno” (“Half-Full Glass of Water”), was exhibited at ARCO art gallery in Madrid in 2015 with a price tag of €20,000. Reportedly, there was a buyer who had reserved it for purchase but backed down at the very last minute.
Wilfredo Prieto is known for his conceptual and minimalistic art installations. Some of his works include Look At The Size Of This Mango: a mango and a Blackberry phone tied together with a rubber band, and Bread With Bread, a hamburger of sorts consisting of two bread buns with another piece of bread for filling.
3. “Comedian” — $120,000
A copycat representation of "Comedian"—Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)
Maurizio Cattelan sure received attention when his sculpture America — a fully-functioning toilet made of gold — was stolen from Blenheim Palace in September 2019. But it was his next work of art that broke the internet when it was shown and sold at Art Basel Miami Beach a couple of months later.
Going the opposite direction from his previous work, Cattelan created Comedian: a rather low-budget and minimalistic installation consisting of nothing but a banana duct-taped to a wall— with a price tag of $120,000.
Three versions of it were on display and, much to the world’s astonishment, two of them were bought, for a total of $240,000. Given the perishable nature of their purchase, the buyers received a certificate of authenticity, allowing them to replace the banana as many times as necessary.
And the third one? It was consumed by a man named David Datuna in an act of performance art. Despite the organizers’ annoyance, Datuna walked away undetained, and the installation was promptly restored to its original glory just moments later.
4. “Artist’s Sh**” — €275,000
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)
Piero Manzoni figured that the most original and intimate object an artist could offer collectors was their excrement. So, in May 1961, the Italian artist produced ninety small cans, each containing 30gr of his feces, all sealed and labeled “Artist’s Sh**” in English, German, French, and Italian.
With a price tag of $37 apiece, it is unknown exactly how many cans he was able to sell before his untimely death in 1963. Today his work is highly sought by collectors, who are more than happy to pay exorbitant sums of money for it — in fact, one of these cans was auctioned off for €275,000 in 2016.
Piero Manzoni’s art also included the 1960’s Artist’s Breath, a series of red, white, or blue balloons he inflated with — you guessed it — his breath. Manzoni charged 200 lire for each liter of air he blew into these.
5. “Fountain” — $1,762,500
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Marcel Duchamp was a French-American artist and chessman who transformed everyday manufactured products into works of art by simply repositioning or signing them: a technique he liked to call “ready-made.” Simply put, he selected objects — sometimes altering them ever so slightly — and then presented them as his artwork.
Such was the case of Fountain, Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture consisting of a porcelain urinal resting on its back (presumably for exhibition purposes). The piece was submitted to the Society of Independent Artists, a group of American and European artists who sponsored annual exhibits of contemporary art without juries or prices.
Being a founding member of the Society of Independent Artists, Duchamp submitted his sculpture under a pseudonym, signing it “R. Mutt 1917.” And although Fountain wasn’t rejected, the board decided against showing it in the main gallery, leading to its quick removal and eventual disposal.
Thus Fountain was lost forever, the only evidence of its existence being a photograph later published in The Blind Man, a shortly-lived journal dedicated to contemporary art. Several replicas of it have since been produced and purchased, one of them in 1999 by Greek collector Dimitri Daskalopoulos, for $1,762,500.
6. “My Bed” — $3.77 million
Tracey Emin—Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
In 1998, following an ugly breakup, British artist Tracey Emin spent several days bedridden, depressed, grieving, and doing nothing but eating and drinking alcohol.
When she finally got up and looked at the mess she’d made, she realized she had inadvertently produced an art installation consisting of an unmade bed, filthy bedsheets, blood-stained underwear, used contraceptives, a pair of slippers, cigarettes, newspapers, and empty bottles of vodka.
Emin presented her work — titled My Bed— in Tokyo and then in New York. Then, she submitted it for the Turner Prize contest in 1999 but lost to filmmaker Steve McQueen. Her messy bed, however, received significant attention from the media, instantly boosting Enim’s career as an artist.
My Bed was auctioned off in 2014, for $3.77 million. Other work by Tracey Enim includes Everyone I’ve Slept With, a camping tent with the names of all the people she’s slept — but not necessarily had intercourse — with.
7. “Bridge” — $20.6 million
Robert Ryman was an American artist for whom “it was never a question of what to paint, but of ‘how’ to paint;” and when you examine his work, it’s easy to see why: His monochrome paintings feature exclusively brush strokes and depth of paint, but rarely any other distinguishable elements.
A minimalist and conceptual artist, Ryman produced 40 works during his lifetime, nearly all of them on square canvases, and prominently stressing a single color. He is particularly known for his “white paintings,” which include Tower I, Tower II (both from 1976), and Phoenix (1979), all three being completely white canvases that seem to merge with the walls they’re on.
Ryman’s most famous painting, however, is Bridge (1980), a monochrome piece featuring a combination of several different shades of white and prominent brush strokes. It was auctioned off at Christie’s for $20.6 million on May 12th, 2015.
8. Untitled painting by Christopher Wool — $29.9 Million
Christopher Wool is an American artist known for his paintings of large stenciled letters forming short messages. His work, mostly untitled, includes paintings of words such as “CHAMELEON,” and statements like “IF-YOU-CAN’T-GET-A-JOKE-YOU-CAN-GET-THE-F***-OUT-OF-MY-HOUSE.”
Simple as these may seem, some collectors are willing to pay handsomely to get their hands on one of Wool’s paintings. In February 2012, for instance, someone paid $7.8 million for one depicting the word “FOOL.” If that wasn’t shocking enough, in 2015 another Wool painting — this time a 1990 one with the word “RIOT” in it — was auctioned off at Sotheby’s for $29.9 million.
9. “Rabbit “— $91.9 million
Image source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Balloon dogs are common sights at children’s parties and funfairs. But gigantic versions of these creations can also be found in the most important art galleries around the world. I’m talking about the work of American artist Jeff Koons.
Koons is known for his statues of balloon animals, the most famous of all being Rabbit (1986), a 3ft high stainless-steel sculpture inspired by an inflatable toy. And while it may not seem outstanding by Koon’s standards, it set the current record for the most expensive piece of art by a living artist when it was auctioned off at Christie’s for $91.9 million in May 2019.
Other works by Koons include Play-Doh, a sculpture simulating a pile of scraps of modeling clay, and Puppy, the impossible-to-miss 1992 towering statue of a dog covered in flowers, seemingly guarding the doors of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
For all intents and purposes, art is entirely subjective. Just like beauty, its value lies in the eye of the beholder, and the way it’s appreciated varies greatly from person to person, and even from culture to culture. When it comes to art, controversy is inevitably at its core.
However, these differences in opinion also add to its value. They provoke critical thinking, spark debate, and challenge conventions. And even when these discussions extend to the jagged and material field of monetary gain, they’re reminders of our essence — after all, they’re part of the culture and the history of our species.
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