Culture

What makes a painting worth a million pounds?

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A new documentary charts the fickle currents of the art market, and shows us what happens when beauty goes on sale to the highest bidder

‘Everything appears to be for sale,’ says filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn. ‘It’s a terrifying idea to me. But it is a central, vibrating reality of the world that we live in.’

In The Price of Everything, Kahn, whose previous documentary was about his relationship with his father, the fêted architect Louis Kahn, takes us into the upper reaches of the art world. The narrative builds towards a major sale of contemporary art in New York as we follow the polished, schmoozing Sotheby’s executive Amy Cappellazzo (who admits her favourite part of her job is ‘the chase and the deal’). There’s a look inside the vast $500m collection of 91-year-old Stefan Edlis and we gain access to the studio of Wall Street trader turned art-world powerhouse, Jeff Koons. It’s more like a production facility, with Koons’ assistants beavering away on work that will be attributed to their boss.

But this is not just an exercise in finger-wagging at the One Percent. ‘One of the things we wanted to do in making the film was to identify the moment when contemporary art began to be seen as a commodity,’ says Kahn. The moment he alights on is in 1973, and a major sale of pieces owned by the taxi company magnate Robert Scull. ‘As far as we know, it was one of the first times that a sale had been made up almost entirely of work by living artists. And it was a big hit.’

There was uneasiness, though, as artists who sold their work to Scull thinking he loved it realised that he had bought to make a profit. One of the artists whose work was sold in the Scull sale was Larry Poons. Having been ‘hot’ in the Sixties and early Seventies, he fell out of favour. When Kahn catches up with him, forty-odd years later, Poons has been working in a converted barn in upstate New York, largely untroubled by commercial interest. But the visit coincides with attention from a Manhattan gallerist, who is keen to once again display Poons’ work in the big city.

It’s uplifting, to see a purist get some reward for decades of art for art’s sake, but as the film gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. While Poons finally enjoys success, the man whose name rhymes with his, and who made millions of dollars from a career that has been almost the exact opposite, is enduring something of a downturn. Cappellazzo remarks that large corporations’ habit for plonking Jeff Koons sculptures in their offices is making him somewhat unfashionable, earning him a reputation as ‘lobby art’. Ouch! At least he’s got something to fall back on.

In cinemas now, thepriceofeverything.co.uk