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What Does "Masterpiece" Mean Today?

What's the Latest Development?

In an attempt to buoy the mid-range art market, the world's largest auction houses are changing what is meant by "a masterpiece." A new art fair in London is prepared to auction a Cartier necklace and custom-built Harley Davidson motorcycle alongside a painting of St. Augustine attributed to Caravaggio, all under the title of "masterpieces." "Masterpieces have always been important, but now we market them more aggressively," says Henry Wyndham, chairman of Sotheby's Europe. "Moreover, the public is better educated today, aiming for the best of the best."

What's the Big Idea?

The new definition of masterpiece, which is growing in dominance across the world of art collection, focuses on outstanding individual examples across categories rather than must-haves within a single category. "For critics, it aligns art directly with luxury, suggesting that what ultimately unites these objects is their availability only to the very wealthy." While this may evoke the contemporary style of collecting, there is a danger that it could become "an exercise in branding, with the word 'masterpiece' used to identify a highly saleable work rather than a work of outstanding quality."

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

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