J Cult Econ
Don Thompson: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark:
The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, ISBN: 9780230610224
Received: 23 April 2009 / Accepted: 23 April 2009
Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. 2009
Don Thompson’s ‘‘The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of
ContemporaryArt’’ is an interesting compilation of many different facets of the
Contemporary Art market. The book is written around a central thesis—that
branding is responsible for the popularity and prices of contemporary art.
Thompson begins the book by focusing on Damien Hirst’s sculpture of a shark,
‘‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.’’ Thompson
is highly critical ofthis work and uses this work as a springboard to his next three
chapters—and primary thesis of the book—that Contemporary Art is all about
branding and only about branding. Suitably, chapters 2 through 4 are entitled
‘‘Branding and Insecurity,’’ ‘‘Branded Auctions,’’ and ‘‘Branded Dealers.’’
Thompson has formed negative views both of Contemporary Art and of
Contemporary Art dealers, and heuses these chapters to advance these views.
This is evident in comments like ‘‘one should remember that the key part of the
word contemporary is ‘temporary’’’ (p. 25). Thompson is equally critical of art
dealers. Describing a potential visit to a dealer, Thompson writes ‘‘If you do enter
and avoid immolation [here Thompson refers to an earlier comment], there is still
the fear that the dealerwill treat you as an unwelcome intruder or worse, as an
idiot, and will patronize you’’ (p. 28). Thompson believes that artists, dealers, and
auction houses have conspired to brand certain artists, thereby driving up their
Whether or not one is persuaded by Thompson’s arguments, the book as a whole
is very informative and wonderful reading. The book has a lot of information tocontribute regarding contemporary artists and the prices of their art, not just at
auction sales but also at dealer sales, a part of the market that can be secretive and
difﬁcult to understand.
K. Graddy (&)
Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, USA
J Cult Econ
The author, Don Thompson, has spent much of his career as the Nabisco Brands
Professor ofmarketing and strategy at Schulich School of Business at York
University. His explanation for the popularity of contemporary artists and their art is
branding. Self-promotion and promotion by interested parties has created these
brands and this branding is what makes the art valuable.
Thompson supports this view by beginning his chapter on Damien Hirst with a
quote attributed to Hirst, ‘‘Becoming abrand name is an important part of life. It’s
the world we live in’’ (p. 61). Thompson then proceeds to detail the many different
ways in which Hirst has exploited his brand such as opening up a retail store and
selling silkscreens of his work, ‘‘For the Love of God’’—a life-sized cast of a human
skull, with human teeth, and numerous diamonds adorning the skull.
The important question—whichis impossible to empirically address—is whether
Hirst’s work is important and expensive because he has branded himself or whether
Hirst has become a ‘‘brand’’ because his work is important and expensive.
In addition to focusing on Damien Hirst, Thompson proﬁles Andy Warhol, Jeff
Koons, and Tracy Emin by writing about the three in a single chapter. As with Hirst,
Thompson does little to hidehis skepticism regarding the artistic merit of these
artists, and invokes quotes to show that others share his beliefs. He ends the chapter
with the paragraph:
Warhol, Koons, and Emin are great examples of ‘‘You are nobody in
contemporary art until somebody brands you.’’ Or until you brand yourself, at
which time the world’s major newspapers and art magazines will feature your
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