Has the Art Market Lost its Mind?

These are crazy times, so why should the art market be immune? However, there’s madness and then there’s sheer madness. Only half over, the month of May 2012 might go down as the maddest month in art market history (at least until the next spate of insanity). Kicking off with the purchase of a pastel version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (detail of another version shown above) for a new auction record of $119.9 million USD, the irrationality has risen seemingly day by day. Why in the midst of a global recession is the art market booming? Has the art market lost its mind? Or should we all be screaming over how this boom is even possible?


On May 1st, five bidders battled for 12 minutes at Sotheby’s in New York before an unidentified telephone bidder emerged victorious with the winning bid, eclipsing the $106.5 million USD Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust commanded two years ago. Rumored buyers include Russian businessman Leonard Blavatnik, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and the Al Thani family that has ruled Qatar since 1825—the top 1% of the global one-percenters. Even with 15 of the 76 total lots failing to sell, The Scream sale at Sotheby’s totaled $330.56 million USD, more than the pre-sale estimate of $323 million USD. This wasn’t a one-hit wonder. It was a full barrage of buying excess.

But wait… there’s more! The week after The Scream sale, a sale of postwar and contemporary art took in $388.5 million at Christie’s and a sale of Impressionist and modern art garnered $266.6 million at Sotheby’s. Souren Melikian of The New York Times said it was a week of blockbuster art sale profits that “conclusively proved that the disconnect of the art market from the broader economy is now radical.” In other words, the mega-rich have always paid prices for art that make the 99% gasp, but the latest prices paid have made many cringe and, perhaps, angry. On the night that The Scream set the new record, Occupy Wall Street protesters demonstrated outside the auction hall against Sotheby’s shoddy labor relations with the people they pay to handle the pricy art. Upon hearing the news, however, the protesters’ focus shifted toward the new record. “It exemplifies the ways in which objects of artistic creativity become the exclusive province of the 1 percent,” complained one protester. The other three versions of The Scream are now safely in Norwegian museums, protected as national treasures. What will happen to number 4 is a mystery, for now. But the people of Norway and the people of the world had no voice in what its fate might be. All we can do is scream.

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight believes that “art prices reflect income inequality.” Knight rightfully calls the current art market “a freak show,” before asking “what price for a pastel drawing would transform a freak show into a respectable sale: $40 million? $10 million? $50,000? Even that last sum bumps up against the annual median income of an American family.” Although some see “obscenity” in Munch’s art and that of others attracting such prices, Knight argues that “[t]he obscenity isn't in the astronomical sums art has been fetching, it's in the circumstances that make those prices possible.”

I agree with Knight wholeheartedly. First, the economic power players claimed the economy as their personal plaything, seizing riches for themselves and preaching austerity to everyone else. Now, those same economic elites look to take the cultural heritage of the world and literally hang it in their guest room. I can’t help but think of that scene in Dr. No when Sean Connery’s James Bond does a double take when he sees Goya's Portrait of the Duke of Wellington (which had been stolen in real life and was missing at the time the film was made) hanging on the wall of the title villain’s lair. The Scream and other works may have been lawfully bought, but the cash behind many of those sales was collected on the blurry borders of financial crime. Maybe these buyers will donate these works to museums where the world at large will get to see them again. But I find that storyline as implausible as that of a Bond film, but one where the bad guys win.

[Image: Edvard Munch. The Scream (detail), 1893.]

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

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Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.