When Thomas Gainsborough’s “Blue Boy” sold in 1921 to railroad millionaire Henry E. Huntington, for around $700,000 (reports vary), it got the same blanket coverage, for being the most expensive painting ever, that Munch’s “Scream” got in May when it broke all auction records – and got again today (including from me) with the revelation that the buyer was New York financier Leon Black.
For a while “The Blue Boy” was iconic in the way Munch’s picture is now: It was what my grandfather, a grocer, always mentioned when famous artworks came up, and my wife tells me her grandmother kept a print of it on her wall. And now it’s sunk to being just another mostly-forgotten Old Master picture. Even memories of pricetags eventually fade. (Another nice realization: “The Blue Boy” was only 151 years old when Huntington bought it – not that far from the 117 years between “The Scream” and its sale.)
Writing about Black’s $120 million purchase, I came across some interesting things about “The Blue Boy”.
First, even converted into today’s dollars, the Gainsborough’s record price would only be about one twelfth what Black paid for “The Scream”.
And second, as I didn’t have room to mention in my story, its price represented 1/65th of Huntington’s net worth – about $45 million, or $600 million today – which is less than half the 1/28th share that Munch’s picture takes up of Black’s, which Forbes estimated at $3.4 billion. (This wealth, absurdly, makes him only number 330 on Forbes’s list of billionaires.) Such numbers help us realize how much richer today’s tycoons are than the infamous robber barons, but also how much more they spend on art. To spend the same proportion of their wealth (let’s call it their “art share”) they have to lay down five times as much money, in constant dollars. No wonder there’s so little wealth to go around to everyone else, and that art prices have soared.
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