Interview Life

Interview with Don Thompson

I am absolutely clueless about art. Despite the fact that my mother loves art and I grew up going to museums and surrounded by countless hardcover books filled with paintings and sculptures and ceramics- I have retained almost no knowledge about art, and what makes it “good” vs “bad”, and certainly not what makes a piece worthy of a high price. I just like things that are pretty, or interesting. I have no idea why certain pieces of art are priced or valued the way they are and am always the ignorant friend giggling over the solid blue and red painted canvases at the Pompidou (I’m just there to eat at Georges) which I’m sure are worth huge sums.

That’s why I am such a fan of Don Thompson’s fantastic The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art. Published in 2008, the meticulously researched work serves basically to answer the question – why would one of the world’s most famous hedge fund investors, certainly a very intelligent man about money – pay $12 million to buy a decaying shark preserved in formaldehyde in a tank?  What makes pieces like this worth so much – and is it a true value, or just as one art critic put it – a “cultural obscenity?” And either way, with these valuations – where can I find myself a stuffed shark to play with?

Don Thompson does a fantastic job of not only explaining why that stuffed shark went for how much it did – but also how the contemporary art market evolved to the highly competitive and stratospherically priced place in the art world that it occupies today. The book is filled with history, fantastic profiles and interviews from major players in the art field, and fascinating insights. A quote from early on in the book reads: “What do you hope to acquire when you bid at a prestigious evening auction at Sotheby’s? A bundle of things: a painting of course, but hopefully a also a new dimension to how people see you.”

How interesting is just that one sentence, and how much does it make you want to learn more? The entire book is a testament to Don Thompson’s meticulous research on a fascinating subject, and his great work in putting the story all together. I am happy to introduce him as this week’s interview subject, and I’ve also included a few of my favorite quotes from the book throughout.

Don Thompson being interviewed for the National Post, via

Who are you? What do you do, and where do you live currently?

My name is Don Thompson. I live in Toronto, am an economist by training and teach in an MBA program at the Schulich School of Business at York University.

Roy Lichtenstein’s “Sleeping Girl,” sold for $45M in May 2012, via


“The value of art often has more to do with artist, dealer, or auction-house branding, and with collector ego, than it does with art.” (pg. 228)


If you could describe the state and market for modern art today in a few short sentences, what would it be?

The market for contemporary art is booming.There is a generational shift towards contemporary and away from the art of the established past. This began with Pop Art and the New York School after the Second World War. It accelerated after the market crash of 1990, spurred by the diminishing supply of high quality older artwork, which had steadily disappeared into museums and long-term private collections. Since the turn of the 21century, contemporary art sales at auction have surpassed sales of Impressionist and modern art.

The other factor impacting the state of modern art today, is the “fit” of contemporary art with modern design, fashion, and architecture. Contemporary art reflects a collector’s individuality and taste in a way that historical art does not.

Damien Hirst and the $12 million stuffed shark, via


“The first great insight from my art world meetings came from Howard Rutkowski, formerly a specialist at Sotheby’s….‘Never underestimate how insecure buyers are about contemporary art, and how much they always need reassurance.‘ This is a truth that everyone in the art trade seems to understand, but not one talks about” (pg. 9) 


Your book was published in 2008, right as the world was beginning to enter a period of significant economic uncertainty. How has the art market changed from then to now? Is the purchasing still as aggressive, the sums as large?

The market dropped significantly in mid 2008 and had recovered to about 90% of its highs by mid 2011. Museum quality contemporary art still brings record prices; there are more museums and rich collectors bidding than there is art available at this level.

Picasso’s Femme Lisant – rumored to have been purchased by a Chinese buyer for $21 million in Spring 2011

What about the geography of current buyers in the contemporary art world? What do you think the demographic makeup of significant art purchasers is going to look like in the next few decades?

In 2003, buyers who spent more than $500,000 for a single work at a Sotheby’s auction came from 36 countries. In 2007 it was 58 countries. In 2011 it was 63.

Museum Morsbroich : Gerhardt Richter *Uebermalte, via

Beach with Umbrellas, by Richard Diebenkorn

Can you name a few favorite pieces of artwork? Do you own any?

Anything by Gerhard Richter (German) or Richard Diebenkorn (American), and no, those are now very expensive works.


“Collectors patronize branded dealers, bid at branded auction houses, visit branded art fairs, and seek out branded artists. You are nobody in contemporary art until you have been branded.” (pg. 12)


Jay Jopling, owner of the White Cube galleries, via

You have quite an in depth (and not always flattering) profile of a lot of famous people from the art world in your The $12 Million Stuffed Shark – Larry Gagosian, Damien Hirst, Charles Saatchi, Jay Jopling, and the list goes on. What was the reception from the art world after it was published?

The reception was uniformly positive. The most common comment was that it was interesting seeing all the information put into a business or marketing context, that people in the art world had not necessarily thought about the whole scene quite that way before.

Le Reve by Picasso, purchased by Steve Wynn for ~$60M in 2001. When showing it to friends in 2006, he tore the canvas with his elbow, due to his gesturing and an medical issue affecting his peripheral vision.

What’re you working on these days?

There is a new contemporary art book, more on “The Curious Economics of the Field” which should be available a year from now.

And finally – please share something surprising about yourself.

My elementary school art teachers would I’m sure all have agreed that I qualified as one of the ten worst student artists they had ever seen.

How charming is that last sentence? With The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, Don successfully achieves a very difficult task – evaluating  the qualitative, emotional aspects of contemporary art while explaining it all through  the cool lens of economics – and he manages to do it all while weaving an easy to understand and compelling story. Thank you Don for the lovely interview (and for introducing me to some great new artists) and I highly encourage you all to check out and read The $12 Million Stuffed Shark – either at your local library, bookstore, or on Amazon here. Whether you’re very experienced in the art world or a complete novice like me, you’ll walk away having learned something new and fascinating about not only art, but economics and human behavior.

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  • Sonya
    August 8, 2012 at 8:20 am

    This was so interesting to read. Thank you for sharing, my father collects art (he has a Wyatt) and I’ve never personally understood it. I need to get this book.

  • adele
    August 8, 2012 at 9:01 am

    Fascinating. I do appreciate art, but have never gotten into it, other than visiting galleries like MOMA!
    Happy Wednesday Hun xoxo
    Vote intotheblonde BEST LIFESTYLE BLOG in the Cosmo Blog Awards 2012

  • Catherine
    August 8, 2012 at 10:32 am

    Fascinating, I must read this book. I actually think the shark is very intriguing. Apparently the title of the artwork was “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Alive”.

  • Lindsay
    August 8, 2012 at 10:44 am

    This book sounds amazing! I’m a huge art person, degree in arts administration, and I still have no clue about art value. I need to get my hands on this asap!

    • Katherine
      August 8, 2012 at 1:12 pm

      Lindsay I had no idea you had a degree in arts administration! I’d love to hear your thoughts after finishing the book, if you read it 🙂

  • Audrey (hkittygirl)
    August 8, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    I feel like I should go read that book now. I’ve been into art for a bit, but I don’t think I fully understand the social effects of it, rather I always focused on the beauty of the piece.

    • Katherine
      August 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm

      Hi Audrey, you should – it is absolutely fascinating!

  • Jennifer
    August 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm

    That sounds like a book I would love to read. Roy Lichtenstein is one of my favorites, but yikes! Art is definitely a subject I’m severely undereducated in. Great interview.

    • Katherine
      August 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm

      Thanks Jennifer, I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I like Lichtenstein too.

  • Jess
    August 9, 2012 at 4:51 am

    Wow! I took a art market class based in economics this past semester and we started off our first few lectures discussing this book and Damien Hirst heavily! It’s so amazing to read an interview by him!

    • Katherine
      August 9, 2012 at 8:08 am

      So cool that you took that class Jess! It sounds fascinating 🙂

  • margot
    August 11, 2012 at 3:42 am

    The grammatical mistakes in some of your posts are atrocious — worth finding a grammar website and/or book to improve, as I assume that writing is also part of your career. For example, it’s “tore the canvas” not “teared the canvas.” “Teared” refers to eyes getting tears in them, it’s not the past tense of tear (as in to rip).

    • Katherine
      August 11, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Hi Margot,

      Thank you for the feedback, I have changed the wording. Writing is an element of my job though luckily I have help there.

  • Helen
    August 11, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    I was raised to embrace art so I have been enamored with Pop Art. Very interesting that contemporary art is going for twice even 3 times as much as historical art.

    • Katherine
      August 12, 2012 at 9:32 am

      I know – it’s a little scary right? I don’t know if I can fully “appreciate” either but surprising that contemporary art is going for more than the work by old masters, etc…

  • Sandra
    August 12, 2012 at 2:04 am

    I really enjoy reading your article! Tnx! 🙂

    • Katherine
      August 12, 2012 at 9:31 am

      Thanks Sandra, I’m glad you enjoyed!

  • grace-alyssa
    August 18, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Katherine, thank you for sharing the awesome interview. I have no clue whatsoever on arts, in fact “giggling at the solid blue and red” is something I do too. Often, reading about the squillion dollars purchase on the news just gets me thinking “hellooow the emperor has no clothes??” Obviously i’m the idiot hehe but now I want to genuinely learn how to understand and appreciate arts and all the different kinds of it.

    • Katherine
      August 19, 2012 at 3:26 pm

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment grace-alyssa! I am like you and reading the book helped me immensely – if you get it I hope you enjoy!

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