How much for this Renoir?

At a flea market in Virginia, a lady bought a bundle of random objects that included a few toys she was interested in for $7 (£4.30). Amongst those random objects was a painting with an imposing Baroque-style frame. As she was about to remove the painting from the frame and throw the canvas away, her mother thought it might be worth having the painting checked first. This proved to be a good idea as the painting is suspected to be Paysage Bords de Seine by Renoir, the last purchase of which was recorded in 1926. The piece remains to be authenticated but, if genuine, the $7 investment could turn into a $75,000-100,000 (£46,170-51,570) sale. (Read more in English or in French.)

Such an anecdote reminds us of the subjective value of art works. Like designer clothes, the price depends on the creator’s name. The price also reduces the work of art down to a mere commodity, albeit a luxury one. Much as I have always loved art for the experience it triggers, I have always failed to understand how a price can be attributed to an art piece. For me, art is beyond what money can buy; art relates to life. Can you put a price on a life experience? Luckily, not all art works are bought and kept privately as personal investments and money-making schemes and we should be grateful to – and indeed support – public galleries such as Tate or the V&A for investing much for the (often free) enjoyment of all.

Paysage Bords de Seine, by Renoir?Photo: Potomack Company

Added 21/09/12 – An oil painting believed to be by Turner has resurfaced. Bought for £3,700 eight years ago, Fishing Boats in a Stiff Breeze would be estimated at £20m. A larger investment for a much larger return than the above-mentioned Renoir. Having studied Turner’s work for my MA dissertation, I must admit that this case stirs something in me. So, however much the present owner may sell it for, I hope we can see it at the Clore or some other respectable and accessible gallery some day.

Fishing Boats in a Stiff Breeze by TurnerPhoto: Private Collection


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