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The prospect that Jeff Koons’ rendering in steel of the cartoon character Popeye will fetch $25 million when it is put up for auction next month is the lead story in the latest number of the Interest Rate Observer. “The art of inflation” is the headline that has been put on the piece by the paper’s famed editor, James Grant. It illuminates a question that has dogged us for some time, namely whether the age of fiat money has begat an age of fiat art.
We last wrote about this question in 2008, in an editorial called “Monet and Money.” It was triggered by the sale the week before of “Water Lily Pond” for what we called 80 million copies made by the Federal Reserve of a small government etching of George Washington. It was an astonishing price increase from the earlier decade, when “Waterlily Pond and Path by Water” fetched but 32.9 million of the small government etchings of Washington.
Despite the price rise in fiat money, we noted, the actual value of the Monets (discounting for the fact that they were two different paintings) had plunged 24% to but 85,333 ounces of gold from the 112,286 ounces of gold that the earlier sale had established as the value of a Monet canvas of these luxuriant lilies. At the time, we suggested that the “the enduring qualities of a great painting are a mockery of the qualities of our monetary management in Washington.”
Mr. Grant invites his readers to reflect on the fortunes of two painters. One is Oscar Murillo, who was born in 1986 and whose canvas of squiggles, “Untitled Burrito,” fetched 10 times its low estimate when it went on auction in February. The other is Esteban Murillo, who was born in 1617 and one of whose renderings of Christ, “Ecce Homo,” and another of Mary were withdrawn after failing to attract their low estimates.
Mr. Grant likens Oscar Murillo to “a kind of momentum stock” and Esteban Murillo to a “kind of value stock.” Mr. Grant goes on to quote Carol Vogel of the Times, relating a meeting two years ago of Oscar Murillo and the collectors Mera Rubell and her husband. He’d stayed up overnight to make seven or eight paintings and later, in another creative burst, did yet more canvases. “It was so intense,” Ms. Vogel quotes Ms. Rubell as saying. “I don’t even think he was on drugs.”
“Maybe the central bankers are on drugs,” remarks Mr. Grant. He then goes on to quote that even the more classical paintings have had their ups and downs. He notes that in 1852, Esteban Murillo’s “Immaculate Conception” brought — in today’s “gold value” (please excuse the redundancy) — $6.6 million. But also notes that in subsequent years the value of a Murillo plunged sharply. If it can happen to Esteban Murillo, why couldn’t it happen to Oscar? he asks.
“Tastes change, money cheapens — and cycles turn,” he concludes. To which we would but add that ideas can have cycles, too. Count these columns as among those that haven’t the slightest doubt that eventually the folly of fiat money will be discovered again in the Congress of the United States that has the only constitutional grant of power to coin money and regulate its value and to fix the standard of weights and measures. And we enjoy the possibility that it will be art that helps them to see.