Art World

Why We Should Raffle Off More Art

It may have taken high-end Sotheby’s to remind us, but this raffle proves one thing—high culture shouldn’t be reserved for the super-rich.

12.20.13 11:15 AM ET

In an art world gone mad, where a Francis Bacon triptych goes for $140 million at auction, a Jeff Koons sells for $58 million, and even a Norman Rockwell fetches multiple millions, it’s a welcome disturbance when a Picasso is bought for a mere $138 at, of all places, a raffle.

This week Jeffrey Gonano, a 25-year-old from Wexford, Pennsylvania, had the winning ticket— one of 50,000 in an online charity raffle organized by Sotheby’s in Paris. Worth an estimated million dollars, the small drawing—L’Homme au Gibus (Man with Opera Hat)—was conceived by the Spanish artist in 1914 and picked up from a New York gallery by a charity organization dedicated to preserving Tyre, the ancient city in modern-day Lebanon. Those behind the auction said tickets were purchased by art enthusiasts from France to Kyrgzstan, but that Americans accounted for a large number of buyers.

It certainly makes sense: Americans love a gamble. This news comes during the same week that a $648 Mega Millions jackpot made people queue up from California to New York to try and win the life-changing sum. There were two winners, in California and Georgia. But putting up a Picasso was an entirely different game of chance dreamed up by Sotheby’s, whose traditional high-end bidders could easily spare a few euros—or a hundred—on the opportunity to own a Picasso.

But what they got was Gonano, a project manager at a fire sprinkler firm, who had been searching for something to brighten his walls when he read about the auction. “I was looking for art and I thought I might as well,” he told Reuters. “I'm still in shock. I've never won anything like this before... Obviously.” Despite its value, Gonano claims he has no plans to sell the sketch, but that may change if buyers start lining up.

Of course, Gonano isn’t the first to stumble into a prized possession. A 74-year-old retired female truck driver hit the jackpot when, in 2007, she unwittingly bought a Jackson Pollock painting at a thrift store for the price of lunch. “I picked up the canvas and took it up to the lady in the thrift store,” she told news outlets at the time. “And I asked her what she wanted for it and she said, ‘Oh, give me eight dollars. And I said, ‘I love my friend, but I don’t love her that much.’ So she gave it to me for five.”

This seems to be a one-off event for Sotheby’s, although it’s nice to imagine a world where the highest of high culture is sold not to the bidder with the swiftest paddle, but to the man or woman who’s lucky enough to be drawn from a hat. If some of these rarefied works trickled down to people who typically can’t afford them, it would paint the art world as less of a velvet rope institution and more accessible for people who just want good art hanging on their walls. Collectors could still fight over their de Koonings and Edward Hoppers, but making it more of a game could prove appealing to a wider swath of the population.

Surely, the chance of other auction houses following in Sotheby’s footsteps is small—who’s going to want their marquee names going for a bargain? But maybe next year—perhaps in a similar display of holiday and charitable spirit—others can follow suit. Wouldn’t it be nice if, for once, you don’t have to be Charles Saatchi to obtain an amazing piece of art?