The meaning of things

The value of an object to us is closely tied with its meaning, and that is up in the emotions we experience


Koen Smets

2 years ago | 4 min read

The art market can be peculiar, but by and large there are some principles that generally seem to hold. One such principle is that an original by a sought-after artist will almost always fetch a sales price that is a large multiple of what a perfect copy would sell for. Simple enough. But what is the value if the authenticity of a work is uncertain? And what else might influence an artwork’s value?

The provenance of a work of art is not always entirely certain. Some experts might believe it really was produced by a famous artist, while others think it is by a pupil, or perhaps even a forgery.

This uncertainty will then be reflected in the price at auction of what is, in comparison with an undisputedly authentic work, a speculative purchase. That price is an indication of how certain the buyer is that they are acquiring something with real market value.

But what if that chance was known exactly?

Well, now we know a bit more about that. A New York based artist collective by the name of MSCHF (derived from the term ‘mischief’) acquired an original print, Fairies, by Andy Warhol from 1954, and made 999 copies of it.

They used a robot arm to ensure they looked identical to the original, and then subjected the copies to a degradation process (check out the video here) to make it impossible to distinguish the copies chemically. And for good measure, they destroyed any internal information that could identify the original print, valued at $20,000.

Art(ificial) value

All 1,000 items — the original and the 999 copies — were offered for sale for $250 each, and sold out in no time. That gives us an interesting perspective on the authenticity of an object.

What did the buyers actually buy? One part of it was definitely the chance that the item they purchased was authentic (though we need to bear in mind there is no way that could ever be established).

We can work out how that one particular aspect was represented in the price: the total revenue was $250,000, for one original worth $20,000, and 999 copies. This makes each copy worth approximately $230.23 ($230,000/999). In practice, this means that the difference in price between a simple copy (with no chance of its being the original) and one of this peculiar set is just under $20.

To some buyers, this characteristic may well have been worth much more than that, but to most of them the possibility that they now possess a genuine Warhol would not have been the only reason to buy it.

The value of a work of art (and indeed of any object) is in the eye of the beholder, and hence artificial. It is also a composite of many different aspects.

Perhaps the most obvious one is the aesthetics. We may value the craftsmanship of the artist, or simply the way the object looks. This is of course entirely subjective: what one person likes, another may find abhorrent.

If it concerns a reproduction, we may also care about the nature of the work — we might be willing to pay $345 for a copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night with real oil colour on real canvas, but not for a fine art print of the same work. (Part of this may be our perception of the production cost and our willingness to compensate that.)

We may also perceive specific value in the subject itself (a view of the village where we were born), or in the context of the work (maybe it is connected to a special occasion, like the Warhol prints). An older work may, all else being equal, also represent more value than a more recent one. Age can be seen as a specific case of scarcity: we see older works as rarer.

Numbered prints are also scarcer than unnumbered ones (and sometimes those with a lower number fetch a higher price, despite being otherwise entirely identical). Related to scarcity, yet different from it, is the aspect of exclusivity: we don’t just value what is scarce, we also value what others cannot have, according to research by economists Alex Imas and Kristóf Madarász.

And of course, bringing us back to the real/fake Warhol pieces, authenticity can definitely have value (even if it is only probabilistic), as can market value: we may prize an inherited work of art depicting a subject we don’t care about and that we find repulsive, but that experts have estimated to be worth £20,000.

Object(ive) emotion

Why do any (or indeed all) of these aspects contribute to the value of a work of art? Because of the meaning they have to us, and because of the emotions this evokes. We can see this by means of a simple thought experiment.

In our spare room, we have had an old painting standing on the floor for years. It comes from my wife’s late parents’ house, where it hung above the dresser since she was born until her father died. It is not a particularly nice painting, depicting a rural scene by someone who clearly did not understand perspective, and with a damaged frame.

Last year, my wife wanted to get rid of this piece of old tat. So, I asked her whether she would take a hammer to it so we could put it out with the trash. She was horrified at the thought — and the painting is still in our spare room.

One aspect I missed out earlier was sentimental value, perhaps the most personal and subjective of all reasons why we may value an object — of art or otherwise.

We all recognize this feeling — I suspect you too have plenty of objects in your house that nobody else would be remotely interested in, but that you wouldn’t give up for the world — from early drawings of your children and old crockery or saucepans from your mother’s kitchen, to perhaps a tatty painting that you inherited. We would not dream of deliberately destroying them, and would definitely mourn if we lost them.

Yet sentimental value is no more tied to our emotions than all the other aspects. If a buyer of one of the mostly fake Warhols were to lose his newly acquired possession, she or he too would mourn. Even if the only loss they felt would be that of the market value, that sense of mourning is a manifestation of the emotional ties to the object.

The meaning of an object is in our heart.

Originally published at 


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Koen Smets







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