An old, not very valuable painting of two rural farm buildings

The meaning of things

The value of an object to us is closely tied with its meaning, and that is tied up in the emotions we experience

Koen Smets
6 min readNov 12, 2021

The art market can be peculiar, but by and large there are some principles that generally seem to hold. One such principle is that an original by a sought-after artist will almost always fetch a sales price that is a large multiple of what a perfect copy would sell for. Simple enough. But what is the value if the authenticity of a work is uncertain? And what else might influence an artwork’s value?

The provenance of a work of art is not always entirely certain. Some experts might believe it really was produced by a famous artist, while others think it is by a pupil, or perhaps even a forgery. This uncertainty will then be reflected in the price at auction of what is, in comparison with an undisputedly authentic work, a speculative purchase. That price is an indication of how certain the buyer is that they are acquiring something with real market value.

But what if that chance was known exactly?

A screenshot of the MFT website showing Warhol’s Faries

Well, now we know a bit more about that. A New York based artist collective by the name of MSCHF (derived from the term ‘mischief’) acquired an original print, Fairies, by Andy Warhol from 1954, and made 999 copies of it. They used a robot arm to ensure they looked identical to the original, and then subjected the copies to a degradation process (check out the video here) to make it impossible to distinguish the copies chemically. And for good measure, they destroyed any internal information that could identify the original print, valued at $20,000.

Art(ificial) value

All 1,000 items — the original and the 999 copies — were offered for sale for $250 each, and sold out in no time. That gives us an interesting perspective on the authenticity of an object.

What did the buyers actually buy? One part of it was definitely the chance that the item they purchased was authentic (though we need to bear in mind there is no way that could ever be established). We can work out how that one…

Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius