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Mona Lisa Grins


Mona Lisa Grins

by Kenneth Lyen

In the mistaken belief that I am good in art, a friend asked me to help choose some pictures to hang on the walls of his new flat. I accompanied him to a shop that sold prints of famous paintings plus a smattering of original local art. We looked at copies of paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso, impressionist painters, and others. He laughed when he saw a Jackson Pollock, exclaiming, "You call that art?" We discussed the relative merits of each painting and whether they matched his room’s colour scheme. Then we looked at the price. The prints cost around Singapore $100 (= US $59) each. "Wah, so expensive", he said.

Then we looked at some Singapore painters showing familiar pictures of local landscapes and buildings. The prices ranged from a few hundred dollars to about $3,000 (US $2,100). "Cannot afford!" he said. Nor I. At least my current priority is not to buy paintings. He was surprised that anyone would fork out that much to buy an original. Finally, after much indecision, he bought a Picasso and a Van Gogh. Now he can enjoy masterpieces in his own home for a steal!

Pablo Picasso's 1905 painting "Boy with a Pipe" sold for US$104 million at Sotheby's in May 2004, shattering the record for an auctioned painting. The previous record was set by Vincent van Gogh's 1890 "Portrait of Doctor Gachet", sold to a Japanese billionaire for US$82.5 million in 1990 at Christie's. Even the controversial splash painter, Jackson Pollock, had a work sold in New York in May 2004 for US$11.65 million, setting a record price for a work by the post-war US artist.

My friend will never understand why art can fetch such obscene prices. What drives the value so high? And more important, who can afford it? "They are mad," said my friend, referring to the buyers. "Why not just buy a print of the same painting for $100?"

Why would an imitation of a famous painting, or a forgery, only distinguishable from the real thing by an art expert, cost next to nothing?

Attaching a price to a work of art, is also an art. For a local artist, if the price is too high, the piece will remain hanging in the shop unsold. If too low, neither the artist or the shop owner who collects a commission, will be happy.

I was lucky that an artist friend did indeed give me one of his original paintings. His painting will increase in value after he ascends to another plane. But he’s not going to die in the foreseeable future. So I have to bide my time and hopefully outlive him. Gosh, am I falling into the same abyss as art dealers who look at art less for their art and more for their economic potential?

I guess the price of a painting is determined by how much one is prepared to pay for it.

I used to hang a print of the Mona Lisa in my university hostel room. Cost a few smackers. That's all I was prepared to pay. It took Leonardo 4 years to paint it. Wow! I guess the value of a painting must, at the very least, incorporate the living expenses of the artist. I had no idea that da Vinci embedded so much symbolism into it. Value added?

So when is the real Mona Lisa going on sale? I would love to watch the filthy rich try to outbid each other! If only I could afford to indulge in this sport! The pretty lady would just sit there, grinning enigmatically!