Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

The auction at Christie’s in London the other day left the art crowd gasping. An anonymous buyer won the bidding for Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Sunflowers” (1888) for $39,921,750. The price was more than three times the previous record paid for any painting.
Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. He had hoped that “The Sunflowers” would fetch $30 from some American or British buyer. His masterpiece has seen its original chrome yellow turn browner and what one art specialist called “very dingy looking.”

John Wilmerding, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art, said that even if the Gallery could borrow the painting, it could neither afford to transport it, insure it nor show it.

What makes up the elements of such extraordinary submarkets in the collector’s economy? What motivates people of wealth to pay over $100,000 for an old cancelled stamp or a rusty coin? None of these items produce new wealth or derivative sales as a store or capital equipment do. Unlike an invented product, these collectors’ delights are not reproducible. Instead these submarkets are a product of human psychology which price the item for other willing human psychologies in the trade.

Imagine for a moment a similar phenomenon operating in the arena of justice rather than art. At auctions in the world’s major cities affluent bidders would place their offers for proposals by prominent justice advocates to better the world in some respect.

Say an auction house by the name of Justie’s was operating this submarket in London. One morning before a large gathering of onlookers, the bidding opens for projects dealing with world hunger reduction, with new ways to achieve arms control, with unique modes to reduce illiteracy or promote self-health care that rejects the addictions of alcoholism, drugs and tobacco.

Excitement fills the air as the people who conceived or are ready to implement their proposals paraded before both known and anonymous bidders of wealth from a variety of nations. The bidding starts for these justice projects and it is furiously competitive. For each bidder’s psychology is to sponsor a particular project of great interest and inestimable status among his or her peers.

Alas the affluent mind has not matured to the kind of wealth that is beyond the dreams of avarice. And so, brilliant ideas backed by astute and energetic citizens remain in suspended animation, no matter what their level of proven pilot or model experience may be.

Someday, when we understand more about how a great but faded painting can fetch $39 million, perhaps we will know how to develop the motivation or some other drive that would create &nd sustain justice auctions.

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