Does Eccentricity Raise the Value of Art?

Artists may often be eccentric, but does eccentricity increase the worth of an artist's work?  That's the question asked by psychologists Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou in a new paper on eccentricity and art. Here's a summary from BPS Research Digest:

Wijnand van Tilberg and Eric Igou tested these ideas across five studies. In the first, 38 students rated a painting by Van Gogh more positively if they were first told about the ear-cutting incident. In two other studies, dozens more students rated paintings by a fictional Icelandic artist more positively and estimated it to be more valuable if they were told he had an eccentric personality, or if they saw a photograph showing him looking eccentric, unshaven with half-long hair (as opposed to seeing a photo showing him looking conventional, with short hair and neat clothing).

CSI: Art Edition

Forensic scientist Nicholas Petraco, who analyzed ashes in our podcast "The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat," is currently embroiled in a debate about a Jackson Pollock painting. From The New York Times:

On one side stands Francis V. O’Connor, a stately Old World-style connoisseur with a Vandyke beard and curled mustache, who believes erudition and a practiced eye are essential to judging authenticity. Mr. O’Connor, a co-editor of the definitive Pollock catalog and a member of the now-disbanded Pollock-Krasner Foundation authentication committee, said “Red, Black and Silver” does not look like a Pollock.

“I don’t think there’s a Pollock expert in world that would look at that painting and agree it was a Pollock,” Mr. O’Connor said at a symposium this month.

The Real Fake

Last week, we described how the famed U.K. street artist Banksy had set up a stand in New York’s Central Park selling real Banksy pieces – stenciled figures spray-painted on canvas – for $60. The art was worth a lot more than that, yet almost no one bought any. We asked how that could be – and got a lot of great reader responses in the comments. Thanks!

It turns out that there’s a second part to this story. One week after Banksy tried and failed to sell his art, a bunch of unrelated artists set up a stand selling fake Banksys for $60. The pieces were exact replicas of the ones Banksy had tried to sell in his stand.  But this time the artists told shoppers very clearly that the pieces were fake. And yet they sold out their stock in an hour.

When a Fake Banksy Is a Real Banksy

Many news outlets this week carried the story that Banksy, the celebrated British street artist, had set up an innocuous-looking booth near Central Park that offered original signed works for $60 each—despite their value being much closer to $60,000 apiece.  Even with this astounding discount, only a handful were sold—as the video in the post, from Banksy’s website, shows.

What’s interesting to us is what this says about art and the role of copies. While copying is a huge concern in many art forms—especially music and film—in fine art, it is comparatively insignificant. In China, there are whole villages full of artisans devoted to copying the great masters of Western art, and certainly fakes and frauds are well known in the West as well. Yet there is not a thriving black market in Banksy knockoffs—or, for that matter, in the work of other major contemporary artists.  Why is that?

The Authors of The Knockoff Economy Answer Your Questions

We want to thank everyone for their questions -- it's great to see people responding to, critiquing and, in some cases, tweaking, the ideas we set out in The Knockoff Economy. We are fascinated by the complex relationship between copying and creativity -- and we're thankful that many of you are as well.  So, to the Q&A . . .

Q. The issue that concerns my industry most is internet sales of prescription skin products such as retin-A and hydroquinone. Some might be counterfeit, but many are probably diverted products. The manufacturer sells them to a physician, the unscrupulous physician sells them on the internet at a deep discount, the patient may be hurt by expired or dangerous medications or may not use them correctly even if they are real. This hurts legitimate physicians by drawing business away from them, but also hurts a manufacturer’s reputation. (Apparently, people who have qualms about buying Viagra online don’t think twice before buying skin medications from those same sources.)

Do you plan to do any research in this area? Will you be looking at diversion in addition to counterfeits?

Excerpt from The Knockoff Economy: Tweakonomics

Here is an excerpt from The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation, which has just been published by Oxford University Press. Over the next few weeks, we'll be running 2 excerpts from the book here on the blog and taking questions from Freakonomics readers in a Q&A. We’ll also run a contest for the wackiest photo of a knockoff item. 

In The Knockoff Economy we examine the relationship between copying and creativity. Most people who study this area look at industries such as music or publishing, where intellectual property (IP) protections are central. We do something different: we explore innovative industries—such as fashion, food, fonts, and finance--in which IP is either unavailable or not effective. In these industries copying is common, yet we find that innovation thrives. In a world in which technology is making copying ever easier, we think these industries have a lot to teach us. And one of the key lessons is that copying is not just a destructive force; it can also be productive. Harnessing the productive side of copying—the ability to refine, improve, and update existing innovations—is at the heart of this excerpt.


Rules against copying don’t just cover outright imitation. They also address variations: works that use that some portion of another creative work but add in new stuff, and in the process transform the original work. Think of Shepard Fairey’s famous Hope poster of Barack Obama, which took an existing photograph and reworked it into an iconic image: 

When Graffiti Strikes Back

We've written a few times about what we call reverse incentives: comedian and activist Dick Gregory's use of the N word; Planned Parenthood turning abortion protestors into a fund-raising scheme; and the “pledge-a-picket” drive.

The latest instance comes from fashion designer Marc Jacobs. It began when the graffiti artist Kidult vandalized Jacobs's SoHo shop by scrawling "ART" across the storefront. A Twitter war followed, but Jacobs wasn't done. As The New York Observer reports:

More Demand, More Paintings

A sign on the wall at an exhibit of René Magritte paintings noted, “Magritte repeatedly painted variants of his subjects, mostly to satisfy demand in the art market.”  Even artists are selling their products, just as businesses do.  When the demand for their product increases, it calls forth a supply.  We also see this in popular literature, where a highly successful mystery writer winds up in a rut writing minor variations of an earlier hit.  Sadly for us economists, this doesn’t seem as easy to do—the premium is on originality and novelty; if today’s demand called forth minor repetitions in what we supply, we soon wouldn’t get the stuff published very well!

Question of the Day: Does a Lack of Exposure to the Arts Lead to Disaster?

A reader named Matt Radcliffe writes:

I've been working on a project concerning musical theater performance. I have a hypothesis which seems intuitive enough to me -- that a lack of exposure to creative arts can lead to disastrous results for individuals (lack of education, poverty, etc).

I can find a plethora of research that proves the opposite (exposure to creative arts can lead to success), but I can't find anything towards my hypothesis.

The Unequal Couple

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting The Unequal Couple (Old Man in Love) illustrates exchange in the marriage market.  An unusually looks-challenged old man, holding a gorgeous necklace, embraces a beautiful young woman, who seems pleased with the arrangement.  

Nearly 500 years ago, Cranach recognized that in the marriage market men typically exchange their earning ability for a woman’s looks and reproductive ability.  That is probably less true today than in Cranach’s time (early 16thcentury), but the evidence shows it is still partly valid.