Volatility and value

The fine art market continues to generate headline-making sales. This year, paintings by Warhol and Munch are expected to sell for more than $50 million each.

What makes a painting famous enough to sell for that much money?


Consider the Mona Lisa. The reason that it's the most famous (and arguably the most valuable) painting in the world is that it was stolen in 1911. (Even Pablo Picasso was questioned as a possible suspect). For two years, it was a media sensation–precisely when newspapers were coming into their own. For two years it was front page news. As the world media-ized itself, we needed an icon to stand for "famous painting" and the Mona Lisa was it.

Media cycles have gotten shorter and shorter since then, and ironically, it was Andy himself who predicted that one day we'd all be famous for fifteen minutes. The thing is, being famous for fifteen minutes isn't sufficient to make your painting worth $80 million.

Andy never had his own tv show, wouldn't have had the most viral video on YouTube and wasn't focused on the fast pump of fame. It turns out that get big fast (and then fade) doesn't build a reputation that pays.

Media volatility makes more people and more ideas famous for ever shorter periods of time. What the fine art market shows us, though, is that real value isn't created by this volatile fame. Consistently showing up on the radar of the right audience is more highly prized than reaching the masses, once then done. This works for every career, even if you've never touched a brush.