Feb 25 2015

Art, meet Economics

Here’s a great story about the importance of getting an education in both Art and Economics: ArtNet News – New York Times Exposes Peter Lik Photography SchemeGive it a read before reading the rest of this post.

Lik

There’s a lot of interesting Microeconomic applications of this story. Lik makes 995 prints of a photograph, sells them for cheap at first, but as they become more “scarce” the price rises. If the prints were, in fact, becoming “scarcer” then there might be a justification for their prices rising, and it is this illusion of increasing scarcity that tricks his (apparently un-art-educated and un-economics-educated) buyers into being willing to pay a much higher price for the final few prints than was paid for the first several prints sold.

In fact, the prints don’t become scarcer as more are sold, rather, the quantity supplied remains constant at 995. In most markets, to sell additional units of a product, the price typically has to decrease (since those who are willing to pay the most will buy first), but in the market for Lik’s photographs, those willing to pay most are the LAST buyers of the good. He has managed to reverse the rationale behind consumer behavior by creating an artificial sense of increasing scarcity, and thereby tricking his buyers into believing they are investing in an asset that increases in value over time rather purchasing a good that only loses value once it leaves the gallery.

Assuming demand for a particular print is fixed in a period of time, there really should be a single price as long as the quantity supplied does not change (which it doesn’t!!). But by making his buyers think the scarcity is increasing (by implying that the more are sold, the fewer the there are available to buy), demand actually rises as more prints are sold and the the price correspondingly increases. There is no actual change in the quantity supplied, only demand, and the reason demand is increasing is the belief that the rising price signals increasing scarcity, thus the ability to sell the art for an even higher price in the future. Art can be an investment, like gold, which people demand more of when the price is rising, because of the anticipation of future price increases (and thus the ability to make a profit on the purchase and future sale of the asset). As it turns out, the secondary market for Lik’s prints is tiny and few buyers have ever turned a profit on their purchase of a Lik print.

The fact that the prints’ prices are rising is evidence only of Lik’s monopolistic, price-making power, not a real increase in the market value of a Peter Lik print. Lik himself reveals this ruse when he says about his art, “”It’s like a Mercedes-Benz, you drive it off the lot, it loses half its value.”

The moral of this story: If you don’t study both ART and ECONOMICS in school, never pretend to be a skilled art collector, because you’re only being tricked by scam artists (and savvy businessmen!) like Peter Lik!


About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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