Why buy an original?
The world of art (fine art, photography) is going through a major upheaval. Artificial intelligence is making it possible not only to make superb copies of fine art but also create “original “works. Also, investment in physical art is moving toward that of a digital form. Note the outlandish prices being offered for digital images that are “original” as confirmed by technologies such as NFT.
Originals, copies, AI, fakes, outlandish prices. What’s going on? What is going to happen?
Thinking through this, I went back to the basics. Why would one acquire a piece of art…physical or digital? Then the next question would be: Why not buy a copy instead of original?
According to me, here are five factors that lead you to answering these questions.
Factor 1. The pleasure the work provides by looking at it.
Why does certain artworks give pleasure, and others do not? It is a matter of individual taste. A refrain I have often heard from buyers (or appreciators) is that “this work speaks to me.” There may be several reasons for that: The work reminds him (her) of some pleasant memory…the scene, the person in the artwork, the atmosphere. Maybe the subject, the composition, and the lighting are very appealing. For abstract art, looking at it engages a different part of the brain. That might do the trick and the work of art speaks to him.
One point to keep in mind is that the same feelings can be invoked by a copy as an original art work, especially now that an AI driven “artists” can exactly duplicate each brush stroke in case of fine art, and by simply pressing the duplicate button on a laptop, one can make exact copies of a digital art.
Factor 2. The authenticity of the work.
By authenticity, I do not mean “original”. Rather, for example, that the scene presented in a photograph is real, exactly as captured by the camera without any significant alteration.
The value of this factor was brought home to me by a comment from one of my relatives who wanted to print and display one of my photos of a bee and a flower. He wanted to make sure that the bee was real and not Photoshopped from somewhere else. Only then he was going to make a print. Now, even if the bee was Photoshopped, he would have gotten the same pleasure from looking at it (Factor 1 above) but he put a higher value on a realistic representation of nature, than a fake one.
The same argument is made by the judges in a photo competition I frequently enter. The images have to be authentic, not Photoshopped. Unless, of course, the artwork is entered in a “Creative” competition. Then anything goes, and this Factor does not apply.
Factor 3. The pleasure of owning an original.
There is some inherent pleasure of owning the “original” even if a copy provides the same pleasure if you look at it. Of course, if there is no original, there will be no copies. Copies get made because the original has such appeal (Factors 1 and 2), and the artist becomes well-known because of those Factors.
People go through great lengths in ensuring the work of art they are acquiring is original. If it is a masterpiece from a well-known artist, there is a trail of ownership, so the originality may be assured. Unless a hidden work appears in someone’s cellar. Then the brush strokes are examined and the chemical composition of the paint is evaluated to ensure it is not a fake. Once again, in the world of AI, this will become increasingly difficult.
For digital images, NFT (Non-Fungible Token) is one way to assure the owner that he owns the original. This is a welcome development for digital artists.
This Factor — -the pleasure of owning an original — — has emotional reasons rather than rational. Perhaps the next Factor augments the reason for owning an original more strongly.
Factor 4. The bragging value of owning an original
This comes to play if the artist (or photographer) is famous. “Hey, I own an original Van Gogh, while you can afford to own only a copy.”
How do you separate this factor from the one above? There is a simple test: If you can not tell anyone or show anyone what you own, what will you purchase? The answer reveals your true love for owning the original, not the bragging rights that come with that.
Frequently, artwork does get purchased anonymously, and one of the objectives might be that the owner does not want to brag, just get the deep happiness of owning an original. However, the other objective might be to keep the artwork away from potential thieves.
To me, Factor 4 is likely to be a big reason why people are paying outlandish prices for owning originals of famous artists.
Factor 5. Art as an investment
I argue that this is not a separate factor but inherently intertwined with the others above.
A basic assumption in anything that is purchased for investment is it can be sold for a higher price at a future date. For the next person to offer a higher price, not only does he have to be convinced that the item being offered is an original, not a copy, but he has to get more pleasure of owning an original than the first buyer, and/or have a larger need to brag about it (Factors 3 and 4 above).
If that were not the case, the second buyer would get a copy and not purchase the original from the first buyer. The investment cycle will then collapse. In future, the first buyer will not pay top dollars for an original, if it were just for investment purposes because future transactions may not materialize. Unless of course it is a speculative investment; a bet on an unknown artist. Even then, the value will depend on that unknown artist becoming better known so that Factors 3 and 4 come into play. So, Factor 5 is based on Factors 3 and 4, not independent.
The final point to ponder is whether the museums will continue to buy the originals, and pay a premium.
Yes, that may hold true. Afterall, why would visitors pay a premium to see the original Mona Lisa in the Louvre, and not a copy hanging in my den? As long as that is the case, museums will buy originals and brag about them to attract visitors.
Hmmm, museums bragging instead of individuals.