What makes art valuable, really?

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. If you think this kind of art surges from the soul of genius, then Qian was one such font.

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

The fancy dealers were happy selling Qians. The rich collectors were happy owning Qians. The museums and sponsors of international art shows happily displayed Qians.

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. Better they be spent on such basics as functioning streetlights.

Michael Kinsley muses in The New Republic on the possibility of replacing the original art with good copies. “If it takes an expert to detect the subtle differences that separate the original from a copy of it,” he writes, “how big a loss can it be if those subtle differences are not there?” And he notes that even the scholars often can’t tell whose hand wielded the brush, the Qian case being an example.

One consideration for Detroit, though, goes back to the economics of art. Will people pay good money to visit a Monet they know is fake? After all, they could find one in my basement, painted by a relative at a night art class. Granted, it wasn’t the best rendition, but it was good enough for us.

Crass though this may sound, much of the museum-going public’s pleasure comes from proximity to not greatness but items valued beyond imagining. I recall inching along a roped line to view the “Mona Lisa.” I’ve had closer examinations of the masterpiece in art books, but here, I was in the presence of the actual canvas.

What did the personal experience do for me? It let me go home and say, “Guess what. I saw the ‘Mona Lisa’ today.”

We’re not sure where the hugely talented Qian has gone. Federal authorities have not charged him with a crime; their papers poetically refer to him as the “Painter.” The gallery dealers and art experts, meanwhile, face an unenviable choice: Either claim ignorance in the area that made their fortunes or admit to participating in an $80 million fraud.

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, including a home in the seaside resort of Provincetown, Mass.

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 Providence Journal columnist. Her email address is fharrop@projo.com

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