Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Wheelin' and Dealin'

All fields dealing with cultural heritage materials – from books to manuscripts to art objects – have to contend with the consequences of their economic value. Security is an immense obligation, as stolen artifacts and objects can disappear quickly into the marketplace and into the hands of private collectors. While we have had a growing literature on security and the trade in such materials, we have had little explanation about how the economic value of these objects is determined.

Although Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) is not about the trade in cultural heritage, specifically archival documents, it will be of interest to anyone interested in how financial values come to be assigned to unique artistic and documentary materials. Thompson, an economist, followed the contemporary art market over a year and his “book looks at the economics and psychology of art, dealers, and auctions. It explores money, lust, and the self-aggrandizement of possession, all important elements of the world of contemporary art” (p. 7). Thompson provides a detailed accounting of the inner workings of artists, dealers, museums, private collectors, art critics, and auction houses. He considers how certain contemporary art becomes prominent, noting that the “art trade is the least transparent and least regulated major commercial activity in the world” (p. 29), a statement written before the current financial markets meltdown.

Thompson delves into the inner reasons driving the contemporary art market, and here those who work with the generally less visible, out of the headlines, archival collecting will find much that is familiar, although operating on a less spectacular scale. For example, Thompson attributes one of the reasons for the flourishing art trade as having to do with the “worldwide expansion of museums as donors seek immortality and cities seek respectability and increased tourism” (p. 54). Archivists need only think of the intense competition that often takes place for the next presidential library and museum. Thompson also does an excellent job in capturing the sometimes weird and eccentric personalities of the artists, dealers, and curators, and the archives world also is full of similar players.

If one wants an introduction to the economics of collecting, this is a good place to start.