New book looks at how a stuffed shark could fetch $12 million

Why would someone pay $12 million for a rotting, stuffed shark and who determines what great contemporary art is? Those are just two of the questions York marketing Professor Don Thompson tries to answer in his latest book, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art.

The stuffed shark of the title was a work created by British artist Damien Hirst. The rub was that the shark’s skin had turned green and wrinkled and one of its fins had fallen off. Initially the decision was made by then-owner and collector Charles Saatchi to skin the shark and stretch it over a fibreglas mould, but it was still green, wrinkled and continuing to deteriorate. Even so, the piece sold for $12 million to American hedge-fund operator Steve Cohen, and Hirst agreed to replace the original with a newly caught shark.

The issue of the shark’s decay sparked a debate about whether this violated the original artistic concept. Saatchi thought it did, others didn’t. It did bring the question of what is art clearly to the forefront, says Thompson, a professor at York’s Schulich School of Business. He has also taught at the London School of Economics & Political Science and at Harvard Business School.

Who would really want a 3,000-pound decaying shark in a glass vitrine in their living room? Normally, a pickled shark would probably not be considered art, but put Hirst’s name on it and, well, suddenly it’s branded art, says Thompson. Hirst has since sold another eight stuffed sharks – one of them for a record $19 million two weeks ago – and he has another two sharks in the deep freeze. It is the concept and the artist’s brand people are buying into, not necessarily the work. Thompson likens it to consumers choosing a Prada or Gucci handbag compared to an unbranded version at one-fifth of the price.

“Hirst’s titles are an integral part of marketing his work and much of the meaning flows from the title. If the shark were just called Shark, the viewer might well say, ‘Yes, it certainly is a shark,’ and move on. Calling it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living forces viewers to create a meaning. The title produced as much discussion as the work,” writes Thompson in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark (Doubleday Canada, 2008).

It’s more about marketing and branding, than art, says Thompson, who calls Hirst a brilliant marketer. Hirst doesn’t even create his own pieces; he comes up with the concepts for them and has technicians do the work. Then he signs his famous name and the pieces sell for millions of dollars. Thompson tells the story of a painting of Stalin that art dealers weren’t interested in. So the owner, the restaurant critic of The Times of London, took the painting to Hirst who painted a red nose on it and signed his name. The painting sold at Sotheby’s for $270,000.

Right: Don Thompson

As Thompson says, most of the 65 or so pieces that go up for auction at Sotheby’s in a single evening contemporary art sale will be sold, but the majority of them are not the kind of art most people might want to live with. “Every auction lot sells or at least attracts substantial bids, some to be held for investment, some because an adviser’s said, ‘You have to have this’, some because there is such a great diversity in contemporary taste,” says Thompson.

“The branding factor, of a name artist like Hirst, or coming from a name gallery like Gagosian or a Sotheby’s or Christie’s evening sale, is huge. All buyers have great uncertainty about their taste in high-end contemporary art and a fear of their friends saying, ‘You paid how much for that?’ But no one scoffs if you say, ‘This is my $25-million Jeff Koons ceramic sculpture from Sotheby’s’. It marks you as a person of taste and money.”

At the highest level, a work is worth 25 to 50 per cent more if it has been in the collection of a famed collector like Saatchi or has been sold at a prestigious evening auction. What it will fetch can double if it has been loaned to a retrospective at a major branded museum like the Tate Modern or the Museum of Modern Art.

“Nobody’s ever written a book like this before. Artists, and many arts journalists, have great concerns about the way the market judges and values their art, but prefer to write about art in terms of concept and meaning,” says Thompson. “And dealers and auction specialists have a preference for a market whose workings are more opaque.”

The book is an in-depth look at what goes on behind the scenes in the contemporary art world from the artists and dealers to the galleries and auction houses and the marketing that takes place along the way. Thompson also looks at the marketing of individual artists – Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Tracey Emin and Francis Bacon.

The book came out in the UK in January, a few weeks ago in the US, and in Canada last week. It’s being translated into eight languages and has climbed to number 13 on the The Times’ bestsellers list. The Globe and Mail has syndicated it in Canada.

Thompson says what he tried to do with the book was to tell a series of stories. “Most textbooks, including my own, can be pretty boring. Conveying a principle and an application is sometimes better done by telling a story," says Thompson.

It’s an accessible, interesting page-turner of stories and facts about the contemporary art world, which is already being used in several universities in the UK and the US. Thompson’s hope is that it will be adopted as a textbook in 200 art schools.

As for the original Hirst stuffed shark, it is on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “It is the single most-viewed and asked-for item at the gallery,” says Thompson.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer