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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

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“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)

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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

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“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) 

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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.

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“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)

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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.