Behind the Spine: Balloon Dog inflates contemporary art values

By Paul Kennedy

I love dogs. Always have. From Snoopy to our family’s hound, I dig dogs.

Even so, I’m having a difficult time wrapping my head around Balloon Dog (Orange), the most expensive artwork by a living artist ever to sell at auction. The oversized stainless steel pup by Jeff Koons sold for $58.4 million recently at Christie’s record-breaking Post-War and Contemporary Art Sale.

Granted, the sculpture is a bit of a Pop icon, having graced the rooftop of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venice’s Grand Canal and Versailles Palace outside Paris.

Artist Jeff Koons’s sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange), which measures 121 by 143 by 45 inches, sold for $58.4 million at auction.

Artist Jeff Koons’s sculpture Balloon Dog (Orange), which measures 121 by 143 by 45 inches, sold for $58.4 million at auction.

It’s been hailed a “celebration of childhood, hope and innocence.” In other words, it’s an oversized children’s toy now worth $58.4 million. Sorry, but even Santa is not that generous.

So what are we to make of this and the extraordinary results of Christie’s contemporary art auction, which achieved a total of $691.6 million? For perspective, let’s turn to Noah Fleisher, editor of Warman’s Antiques & Collectibles 2015 and public relations director of Heritage Auctions.

“The total of the Christie’s auction, while certainly thrilling, raises many questions in my mind,” Fleisher said. “There’s no doubt that the contemporary market is absolutely red hot, fueled by newly emergent global wealth in non-traditional markets – China, Russia, the Middle East – and the desire of high-end collectors in the West to maintain supremacy, but there’s also the nagging question of whether it will last, and if so, for how long?

“The undisputed masterpieces of the form, from Munch, to Van Gogh, Picasso and the like, will always hold their nine-figure values – they are some of humankind’s greatest treasures – but I hesitate to say that other works will hold the incredible value placed on them today, such as a Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog. Nothing against the talent or vision of Mr. Koons, but it is hard to see that same work doubling in value a generation or two from now.”

Classic art, by definition, transcends time. Will the same be true for contemporary art? Fleisher is not so sure. “The context for the art will have changed and sensibilities will also have evolved (or devolved), making an objective consensus hard to muster on the value front,” Fleisher said. “We can all objectively agree that a Rembrandt or a Monet are wonderful works of art. A giant chrome balloon animal? Ask 10 people today what they think and you won’t get the same answer.”

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What you will get from those 10 people, however, is the same question: Who the heck spends $58.4 million on a dog? To that, Fleisher has the answer.

“As Fitzgerald wrote in The Rich Boy, ‘Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.’ If you can even think about spending $58 million on a giant balloon dog, then I am guessing that a.) you are not too concerned about the amount, b.) you plan on flipping it within a decade or two before the broader popular consciousness forgets the artist or c.) you’re going to donate it somewhere, at some point, for a massive tax write-off, maybe the only thing more popular with the rich than paying exorbitant amounts of money for suspect works of art.”

OK, so the rich are definitely different than me. And probably you, too. But this mind-bending sale could still have significance for us, Fleisher said. “The last part of the equation is whether these astronomical prices at the top help the lower end of the market. I’d have to say that the answer is an unequivocal yes,” Fleisher said. “The $5,000 to $500,000 range has done spectacularly in the last few years, fed by the frenzy at the top. The $5,000 or $50,000 painting bought today, if the market stays healthy, could equal an investment that multiplies greatly over time with a little luck and foresight for the right collector.”

In other words, a Balloon Dog just might be an art collector’s best friend. Woof!

The 5 Most Expensive Paintings Sold at Auction

  • Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969), Francis Bacon. ($142m in 2013)
  • The Scream (1895), Munch. ($119.9m in 2012)
  • Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932), Picasso. ($106.5m in 2010)
  • Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963), Andy Warhol. ($105m in 2013)
  • Garcon a la Pipe (1905), Picasso. ($104.2m in 2004)