The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Back Stories and Peculiar Economics from the World of Contemporary Art

Acquiring contemporary art is about passion and lust, but it is also about branding, about the back story that comes with the art, about the relationship of money and status, and, sometimes, about celebrity. The Supermodel and the Brillo Box follows Don Thompson’s 2008 bestseller The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and offers a further journey of discovery into what the Crash of 2008 did to the art market and the changing methods that the major auction houses and dealerships have implemented since then. It describes what happened to that market after the economic implosion following the collapse of Lehman Brothers and offers insights and art-world tales from dealers, auction houses, and former executives of each, from New York and London to Abu Dhabi and Beijing. It begins with the story of a wax, trophy-style, nude upper-body sculpture of supermodel Stephanie Seymour by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, which sold for $2.4 million to New York über-collector and private dealer Jose Mugrabi, and recounts the story of a wooden Brillo box that sold for $722,500. The Supermodel and the Brillo Box looks at the increasing dominance of Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and a few über dealers; the hundreds of millions of new museums coming up in cities like Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Beijing; the growing importance of the digital art world; and the shrinking role of the mainstream gallery. – Amazon description.


“The most expensive art is usually found in the public rooms: the entrance hall, living room, and across from guest seating in the dining room.”
“Less expensive art is found in personal spaces like the bedroom. Why? After all, we spend more time in the bedroom; that wall is what we see the last thing at night and first thing in the morning. Perhaps bedroom art is intended to perform a different job than is public space art.”

The collecting and displaying of art is paramount to the building of art capital. In this manner, by displaying the best works one owns in the most public of personal space, a collector adds value to the art, while also feeding off of the power the artworks have already accrued. However, the real valuables are shown through the hidden, personal displays of artwork that one wishes to see when one is as oneself, when one is not posturing, work one wishes to keep for oneself.

Unfortunately, the art market depends on the grand show of the art powerhouses, not the intimate and quaint love one may share with an unknown artist’s work. The market is controlled by the majority rule.

What happens if the Mugrabis, for whatever reason, decide to dump Warhol, or Hirst, or Basquiat, or one of their other artists-held-in-bulk, and the word becomes “The Mugrabis are selling”? Would that shake confidence in the entire contemporary art market?

The top names in the art world have been placed on pedestals by the collectors, and those collectors who caught on early, are given the control over the value, popularity, and availability of such artists. However, the dangers in this system ask for some measure of a safety net, and yet there is no such guarantee — those who control the “brand names” control the market, and there is nothing to be done about it.

Keynes said the stock market was a beauty contest. A canny investor should choose not what he thought to be the most promising stock, but the stock he thought other investors would choose as promising.

The only thing collectors can do is ride the currents and hope they don’t get pulled too far out to sea that they find they can no longer find the shore. The art market is exactly like the stock market, constantly fluctuating.



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