What can it mean that a pastel drawing sells for $120m? The economic function of this object is to create value inside the head of people looking at it; if it’s bought on speculation for resale, that function has to be anticipated for a subsequent buyer someday. It’s not copyrighted, so the value has to be the excess of value over that created by a good reproduction, of which there are lots in circulation. At 5%, it has to be $6m per year to justify this price, or $684/hour working 24/7, four times that 9-5 weekdays. The odds that it will be on display anywhere on any terms every hour of every day forever are pretty slim, so let’s go with 2200 museum hours at $3K/hr.
How many people can be really looking at this piece at once; it’s not very big. Maybe four, each of whom has to find it worth more than $10/min. There are certainly people who would pay that, but if they are spending two minutes each, we need 120 of them every working hour, or a quarter million a year, again forever. No, it’s not the greatest work of art ever made, whatever that could mean, and not in the top thousand despite its poster appeal and legs as a meme.
This transaction is completely ludicrous. It properly exposes the whole culture of fine arts to ridicule as a game of poseurs, ignorant speculators, and predators that has nothing whatever to do with what paintings are about, or what art does for us, and that it should be a front page story as a serious event does a little bit to damage the quality of everyone’s engagement with art.