What makes art valuable?

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The amazing story of Pei-Shen Qian has given the art world pause. A struggling Chinese immigrant, Qian painted fake works attributed to the stars of abstract expressionism — Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell.

A woman would pick up the pictures at Qian's shabby house in Queens, N.Y., paying him a few thousand dollars each. She then drove them to Manhattan, where the big-league galleries sold the paintings for millions.

Qian didn't make copies of the famous painters' works. He produced originals that the most practiced eyes took for the drippings of the most celebrated abstract expressionists.

The question naturally arises: What makes art valuable, really?

Everyone was happy with the pictures until everyone found out that Qian had painted them. Their economic value was obviously not in their brilliant execution but in a belief in the art world's stamp of ultimate approval — a declaration of authenticity with a magnificent price tag attached.

Let's move on to bankrupt Detroit. The city now talks of selling off some masterworks in the Detroit Institute of Arts for much-needed cash. Those who regard these artworks as part of the public's patrimony are appalled. Others ask why millions of civic dollars should remain frozen on a few square feet of museum wall space.

Michael Kinsley muses in The New Republic on the possibility of replacing the original art with good copies. And he notes that even the scholars often can't tell whose hand wielded the brush, the Qian case being an example.

But will people pay good money to visit a Monet they know is fake?

Crass though this may sound, much of the museum-going public's pleasure comes from proximity to not greatness but items valued beyond imagining.The unfairness of art world economics is clear. Stray cats now wander through the yard of Qian's beaten and empty house. But one of the artists whose talents he convincingly replicated, Robert Motherwell, left a $25 million estate.

There is some consolation for Qian, however: Works signed by him are probably worth a good deal more today than before the scandal broke. I hope he's busy painting.


Froma Harrop is a Creators Syndicate columnist. Twitter: @fromaharrop.