It’s only money. I have to repeat that to myself from time to time. Because money in itself is valueless – it is what you buy with the money that has value, to you anyway.
A few years back, when I was a church youth group leader, I would talk with the teens about money and value. To get their attention at the start of the evening I would rip up a $50 bill (not so small that I couldn’t tape it back together – I was being dramatic, not stupid). My point was that what we call money is just a convenient medium of exchange, symbolic really, and should not be confused with value.
I was reminded of this on Monday, when a new world record was set for the sale of a work of art, a painting by Pablo Picasso. Women of Algiers (Version O) was auctioned off for almost $179.4 million US dollars. Picasso died in 1973; he won’t see any of the proceeds of the sale.
The average sale price for a house in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, recently passed the million dollar mark. This bit of canvas and paint (and I presume a frame was thrown in at that price) cost almost as much as 200 houses. I’d be tempted to say that was ridiculous, if it wasn’t so absurd. And it’s not like it was all that unique a painting: Picasso painted 15 different versions of Women of Algiers, this one, from 1955, being the final one.
The pre-sale estimate was that the painting would sell for $140 million, but someone obviously wanted it enough to pay more than that. In 1997, the last time it was auctioned, it sold for $31.9 million. All 15 paintings and some accompanying drawings were sold in 1956 for a little more than $200,000. Artwork apparently has gone up in price.
I am not going to rant about the morality of spending such sums on art. The identity of the buyer wasn’t revealed. Maybe he or she is a world renowned philanthropist who has given billions of dollars to help the less fortunate. (Okay, I doubt that, but it is possible.) One thing that is certain is that if they are able to spend that much money on a painting they have a lot more money that I do.
It really is only money though, and whomever has purchased this painting has exchanged those symbols for something they think is of value. The painting wouldn’t have the same value for me; I tend to be more practical. I have purchased original artwork from time to time, but none of my purchases have been in the nine figure range, even if you include the decimals. I like the paintings I’ve purchased; that is why I bought them. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone with my taste in art.
I suspect though that this purchase really wasn’t about art, about really liking the painting. I could be wrong, but would not be surprised to find that there was a certain amount of ego involved. The new owner has bragging rights, he or she owns the most expensive painting in the world. In certain circles I imagine that is a pretty big deal. What the painting is, and who painted it, is secondary.
So we return to the earlier question of money as a symbol for value. You can learn a lot about a person by what they choose to spend their money on. It shows their needs, their priorities and their values. I leave it to you to imagine what sort of person spends almost $200 million on a painting. I’ve thought about it. I don’t think I have much in common with them. Even if I had that sort of money to spend, I would have other priorities.