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A business prof examines excesses of the art market

Last month, the British art world superstar Damien Hirst, famous among other reasons for suspending dead animals in enormous, formaldehyde-filled vitrines and producing diamond-encrusted skulls, became the first major artist in the world to sell new work directly through an auction house.

While that might not seem like a noteworthy piece of information for anyone outside the stuffy world of high art commerce, Hirst's move represented a major and shocking departure from the status quo of an artist's ascendance through an increasingly tangled web of dealers, gallerists, museum curators, auction houses and impossibly rich collectors.

At the time, Richard Lacayo, art critic for Time magazine, wrote in summation: "I do what I can to talk about art but I don't know what to say about shopping." Fortunately for anyone with an interest in the flip side of the art world, the Toronto-based professor Don Thompson doesn't have a clue about contemporary art itself but does what he can -- and it's quite a lot indeed -- to talk about the excesses and eccentricities of the market in which it is sold.

That world, hitherto shrouded in a labyrinthine cloud of self-produced complexities, is given a cutting, exhaustively reported and even occasionally entertaining close-up in Thompson's book "The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art."

In fact, once you get over the head-spinning shock of Thompson's admission (on Page 10, no less) that he "doesn't understand" and therefore will not consider video installations, performance art, film or photography as art forms, it's clear that his purely economic approach is uniquely suited to describing the contemporary art market's absurdities and proclivities in exquisite detail.

Read through this prism, the book is not only a laundry list of the art world's wild machinations, but a pre-emptive skewering of an economic bubble that -- much like the financial markets that recently came tumbling down -- cannot possibly sustain itself for much longer. "Curious," after reading Thompson's book, seems like a far too generous adjective to describe art economics today.

Across the book's 23 example-rich and tersely written chapters, Thompson sets out on a methodical deconstruction of every aspect of the way in which contemporary art is sold. There are sections pertaining to the dealer system, to collectors, to certain exemplary artists and, most interestingly and ominously of all, the international auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's.

Thompson's argument: "The value of art often has more to do with artist, dealer, or auction-house branding, and with collector ego, than it does with art," as he writes in a chapter dedicated to a summary of his grim art-world outlook. The paragon of that argument is of course the titular $12 million shark, part of a work produced by none other than Damien Hirst.

The marine predator in question is currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it is on temporary loan from the collector Steve Cohen, who bought it in 2005 for the aforementioned appalling sum. Thompson's chapter on Hirst doesn't attempt to conceal his contempt for contemporary artists of Hirst's ilk (a sentiment echoed by art critic Robert Hughes). In his eyes, their fame is derived largely from the branding of their name and work -- like that of Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and many others he examines -- is often concerned both implicitly and explicitly with money. In its way, however, Thompson's chapter gives a fascinating picture of the shark's "life," from its extraction from the Australian coastline to its subsequent deterioration, replacement and exorbitant sales history.

Thompson shines brightest when he writes about the auction houses, which along with art fairs are the new forces shaping the economics of contemporary art. His chapter on auction psychology is an unsparing look at egos gone wild, a picture of a world rife with conflicts of interest made stark by his unsparing reportage. The same goes for chapters on Francis Bacon, the huge market for art forgeries and the dwindling influence of critics and even museums.

What this situation really begs for is someone like Tom Wolfe circa 1979 or that other Thompson (the late Hunter S.), who could give the ever-more-bizarre art market the sort of inside-out skewering it truly deserves. But this Thompson, while his prose is often straightforward to the point of technical writing and underlined by a snide cynicism about contemporary art itself, is nonetheless an incredible achievement.

Colin Dabkowski is the News' Art writer.

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The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

By Don Thompson

Palgrave Macmillian

272 pages, $24.95

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