A $43.8 Million Piece of Canvas, and the Value of Authenticity

How much would you pay for a mostly blue canvas with a white line painted down the middle?

February 21, 2014

For an art collector at a Sotheby’s auction in May, the answer was $43.8 million. For the collector on a budget, a similar piece can be had for a few hundred dollars (plus shipping and tax). What’s the difference? The canvas on the auction block was “Onement VI”, by American abstract impressionist Barnett Newman, while the discount option is an approximate copy painted by an anonymous artist from an art reproduction website.

Although it may not come as a surprise that authentic originals command higher prices than copies in the art world, it is not obvious exactly why. In “Art and Authenticity: The Importance of Originals in Judgments of Value,” published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Yale Assistant Professor George E. Newman and Professor Paul Bloom use an array of experiments to explain exactly why art connoisseurs put such a high value on originals.

There are two main phenomena that contribute to the high value people place on works of art:

  • Performance: the perception that an original work of art is valuable not just for the final product, but as the embodiment of a “unique creative act” or performance;
  • Contagion: the value a work of art derives from its close, physical association with its artist. Contagion can be found outside the art world, as well – people will often pay handsomely for otherwise commonplace items that were touched or owned by a celebrity, for example.

Given the example provided by “Onement VI”, it may not surprise you that Art and Authenticity” found that duplicates of practical items (“artifacts”) were valued roughly the same as originals, whereas copies of creative works (“art”) were valued substantially less than original works. What is surprising, however, is that just declaring that something was intended to be a work of art can be enough to stir up a consumer’s distaste for copies. In one experiment, the researchers asked study participants to estimate the value of an original and an exact duplicate of a chair. They told some of the participants the chair was designed to be used as a normal chair, and told others it was intended to be a work of art. 71% of the consumers who were told the chair was a work of art valued the original significantly more highly than the copy, compared to just 54% of consumers who viewed the chair as just a chair.

The intent of the original creator isn’t the only thing that can change how people view the value of a copy – the intent of the copycat matters, too. In another experiment, the authors showed participants two similar paintings of a landscape. Some were told that the two artists just happened to paint the same scene by coincidence, while others heard that the second painting was a deliberate attempt to copy the first. When they thought the copying was done intentionally, participants not only valued the duplicate less than when they thought it was just a coincidence – they also valued the original more highly. The implication is that the mere fact that someone thought the original was worth copying can increase how the original is valued.

The insights “Art and Authenticity” provide into the sometimes mysterious ways in which people value authenticity have applications far beyond the art galleries and auction houses of the world. The contagion effect that helps make a two-colored canvas by Barnett Newman worth a small fortune is similar to the effect advertisers hope to gain with every celebrity endorsement. The importance of intent of both the original creator and the duplicator can be equally useful to marketers – by casting their product as an original work of art, and their competitors as mere copycats, an advertiser may be able to encourage consumers to value the “original” over the “fake”.

Contributed by:

Robert Kimball
Joint MBA & MEM Candidate, Class of 2016
Yale School of Management
Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies