D.L. STEWART: Trying to picture a painting that’s worth $110.5 million

This painting by the late American neo-expressionist John-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5 million. That is not a typo!

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This painting by the late American neo-expressionist John-Michel Basquiat sold for $110.5 million. That is not a typo!

As someone whose taste in paintings begins and ends with dogs playing poker, I couldn’t be less qualified to comment on the latest big news in the art world. Still, I’m entitled to my opinion, as ill-informed as it may be. So my comment on the sale last week of a painting for $110.5 million is:

“Wait … WHAT?”

The painting, which was sold at auction by Sotheby's, is by the late American neo-expressionist John-Michel Basquiat. It depicts a black skull on a blue background, surrounded by what technically would be referred to as "stuff" and when I saw a photo of it my first reaction was that I've seen graffiti on the sides of subway cars I'd rather have hanging in my living room. Which, it turns out, was more perceptive than I realized, because Basquiat, who died in 1988 of a heroin overdose, got his start as a tagger on New York's lower east side.The painting is untitled, but when you pay $110.5 million you probably can call it whatever you want.

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What to call it has raised wildly differing opinions, from “hot garbage” to “a wise investment.” For the unidentified person who sold it, it was a terrific investment: he, or she, paid $19,000 for it in 1984. And the Japanese billionaire who bought it probably is a fairly astute investor. Besides, in the art world, $110.5 is a drop in the paint bucket. One Jackson Pollock painting, “Number 17 A,” was sold for $200 million. A Gaugin for close to $300 million. The latest appraisal for the Mona Lisa was $670 million.

Still, when I see numbers like those, I always wonder how any object that doesn’t cure cancer, end hunger or prevent global warming can be worth that much.

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Value is relative, of course. People might ask what makes a baseball player worth $80 million, but at least that can be calculated by the number of home runs he hits. What justifies paying a CEO $20 million? The answer is as clear as the company’s profit and loss statement.

But what makes one painting worth $100.5 million while another fetches $18.95 at your nearest Walmart? As nearly as I can tell, the answer is: “because somebody said so.”

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Perhaps I’d be able to understand all that if I were better educated about painting. But I lean more toward the written word; I’m particularly fond of a piece of literature called “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Still, in my continual effort to culturize myself, I did some research and learned that an original “Dogs Playing Poker” sold two years ago for $658,000.

For $110.5 million, I could have bought 168 of them.

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