The Art of Behavioural Economics
Much proverbial ink has been spilled on the coinciding of two events on September 16th, 2008. This was the day that, as Lehman Brothers collapsed, artist Damien Hirst made off with a cool £111m, “the largest single artist sale ever held” for his show Beautiful in my Mind Forever, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On Monday evening this week, the auction house Sotheby’s held an Impressionist and Modern Art sale, after a large article in the FT that weekend, detailing how the pieces to go on sale, which included a self-portrait by Edouard Manet (above), were expected to fetch record prices. This following recent all-time record sales, first of a Giacometti sculpture for £65m in February, which was then eclipsed three months later by a Picasso that sold for £72m.
The sale, which ended in the Manet being sold for £22.4m – a record for the artist – was not deemed a success. This morning on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, Sotheby’s representatives were quick to reference “unsophisticated buyers” from the Middle East, Far East and Russia; there was also vague talk of buyers looking for something that looked “like a painting for the 21st century”.
Looking at the sale holisitcally, which we can do purely in financial terms, it was an unqualified success. The result was seen as disappointing only because expectations had been raised considerably, based on – what? There was nothing to suggest that this sale would break major records, only the knowledge that certain pieces of art had recently been sold at high prices.
The problem then, a term used in behavioural economics, is one of anchoring. Behavioural economists disagree with classical economists’ view that people act on a rational basis. The anchoring rubric is a question of framing. In this case, because expectations had been raised artificially by recent news of record auctions, the sale at Sotheby’s was viewed as a disappointment, when in fact, in purely financial terms (i.e. “did the objects on auction meet and surpass their reserve?”), it was a success. In much the same way, the Hirst / Lehman Brothers coincidence is used to illustrate the robustness of the art market, irrespective of global financial turmoil. This framing fallacy concept is of course by no means exclusive to the high-end art world. In fact it can be found everywhere in the natural world as a way of helping judge the relative value or worth of an object, by positioning it relative to its peers. It is done in the supermarket every day to help consumers make a choice between peer products. The different prices and attributes anchor the shopper, giving them a relative understanding of the value of each product. Without this, a shopper would have no idea how much a product or feature was “worth”, or how the product sat on a hierachy with it’s competitors.