The painting at the left, Juan de Pareja
Velazquez, was painted in 17th century Spain. It is one of the most
amazing and penetrating portraits of the entire 17th century, showing
Velazquez’s assistant, who was
of mixed blood (of Moorish and Spanish descent), as a confident, proud
with an incredible sense of presence. In the Spanish court, for which
Velazquez and Juan de Pareja painted, the rigid social system would
labeled anyone of mixed blood as an outsider. Velazquez, however, saw
those social barriers and painted a picture of the man within. This
portrait is one of the earliest studies of personality in painted
(The artist knew how good this picture was, and actually had Juan de
stand next to the picture for a comparison, so people could see how
it came out!)
The painting of Juan de Pareja was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum
of Art in 1971. The Met paid over 5 ½ million dollars. At
the time, it was considered a scandal to pay so much for a work of art.
Today, however, this same picture could easily be worth ten times as
much on the contemporary art market.
Since the 1980s, prices in the art market have increased dramatically,
particularly for works of art by major masters. Prices for pictures by
artists like Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet have been extremely
high. Van Gogh’s paintings, in
particular, have soared in price at recent auctions. One version
his Sunflowers sold for $40 million; his Irises broke $50 million. Both
simply pictures of flowers. Finally, his portrait of Dr. Gachet, the
who treated Van Gogh before he committed suicide, fetched $82.5 million
1990. The art world was stunned, and thought prices could not
continue to rise, and that the new owner of the picture would
eventually lose money. Wrong. The picture sold again privately
for 90 million dollars.
The art world today expects record prices to be broken. The
latest sale to do exactly that took place in May of 2004. Boy
with a Pipe, a painting created by Picasso when he was in
his mid twenties, sold for $104 million.
(The hammer price
was $93 million, and the rest went to the auction house for handling
the picture.) To date, this is the most expensive painting sold at
auction. Stay tuned.
Recent prices have gone so high that people are asking serious
questions about buying art. These are questions that need to be
addressed to understand today’s art world:
- Are works of art really worth this much? Should they sell
for such high prices?
- Why are Van Gogh’s works selling for higher prices than
other artists? Is he really that good, or is something else going on?
- Why do private collectors spend so much to own a Picasso,
Van Gogh or work by other great master? What do they obtain by
- What will happen when prices go so high museums cannot
bid against rich private collectors? (Example: Bill Gates is acquiring
large private collection, including a rare manuscript by Leonardo da
for which he paid $30.5 million. Now that he has these works in his own
collection, the rest of us cannot see them. )
- Can anything be done about the prices in the art market?
Should anything be done?
|Vincent Van Gogh's Dr. Gachet. Van Gogh painted
more than one version of this picture, but one has recently become
famous for its price tag: $90 million.