A famous name can have an extraordinary impact upon the value of something. With celebrity comes a superpower: the Midas touch. The right name can sell just about anything, and at a vastly inflated price. Kanye West – stellar musician – put his name to a clothing line. The most basic item, a plain white t-shirt, retails for $120. Celebrity memorabilia is the mundane made expensive. In recent auction, a coat once owned by John Lennon sold for £7,000. Elsewhere, a plain, greyish t-shirt worn by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator II sold for £900. Taken as they are, these items boast no especial worth. Threadbare, worn, basic – but minted by association. Is this not a little insane? Or do these vicariously valuable items boast some significance of their own?
During his lifetime, Francis Bacon was crowned most expensive living artist. In 2007, his Triptych, 1976 was bought by the Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich, for €55.465 million: a new high for the artist and the highest price ever paid for a post-war work of art at auction. Evidently, we “value” Francis Bacon. This value extends, however, beyond appreciation of artistic merit. At an auction due to take place later this month, Christie’s expects a set of his paintbrushes to fetch £25,000. Perhaps more curious, though, are the values ascribed to the many paintings he (almost) destroyed. In fits of dissatisfaction, Bacon regularly hacked the main subject(s) of his paintings from the canvas, leaving only roughly adumbrated backgrounds, murky and featureless. Many of these have somehow found their way onto the market. Ewbank’s – prominent Surrey auction house – provided modest estimations for the various “destroyed canvases” up for sale, valuing them at around £1,500. The prices they sold at are astonishing. One – a 14” by 12” portrait with the face hacked out, only a shirt collar and pink dusky background remaining – was bought for £40,000. Others, even less distinct, within the £30,000 bracket. Do the pieces command the tens of thousands price tag, or do we suspect rather, a mania for the artist? As ever, a little intellectualisation can muster a not-too-unreasonable defence. Though any obvious significance has been cut-out from the composition-less paintings, one could claim that the absence itself speaks volumes. A space to be filled by the viewer; an articulation of the artist’s frustration; a void, telling us of something missing…But with each of these, we feel the air of pretension encroach a little more. The niggling doubt remains: “but is it worth that?”
The rotten tooth of John Lennon was bought by a Canadian dentist at auction for 30,000. From the DNA implicit in the tooth, the purchaser – Dr Michael Zuk – hopes to create a clone of Lennon. “Most people would say I was crazy,” Zuk says of the staggering price paid for the rock relic, but “if I could play a small part in bringing back one of rock’s greatest stars, it would be mindblowing.” In the absence of beauty, might value be in the eye of the beholder?