NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Agents speak on their phones with their clients while bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" during the Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie's. The rediscovered masterpiece by the Renaissance master sold for a historic $450,312,500, obliterating the previous world record for the most expensive work of art at an auction.

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 15: Agents speak on their phones with their clients while bidding on at the auction of Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi" during the Post-War and Contemporary Art evening sale at Christie's. The rediscovered masterpiece by the Renaissance master sold for a historic $450,312,500, obliterating the previous world record for the most expensive work of art at an auction.

From fairs to auctions to gilded galas, the contemporary art market is booming.

It’s also the financial world’s best kept secret for saving billions in taxes.

Sarah Urist Green, host of the PBS program “The Art Assignment,” explains that each year, many uber-wealthy individuals profit off of the highly unregulated art market, which permits them to earn income tax deductions after donating multimillion-dollar pieces to museums’ collections. In some cases, that means millions in taxes saved per piece.

But the impact isn’t just economic. It also shapes culture, aesthetics and the visibility of certain works of art.

Here’s what Urist Green says about the way the art world hinges on this system:

Art is a commodity. But it’s not merely a commodity. It has a monetary value that can sometimes but not always be quantified. But it also has another kind value that is less measurable. When a huge number gets attached to an artwork, you might look at it and think, “Whoa, that must be a really important painting. I better look closely and figure out why.” But most of the time, you quickly move on to “Whoa, there’s no way this application of pigment mixed with oil on fabric stretched over a wooden frame can live up to this kind of evaluation.” It can still be a great painting. But it becomes increasingly difficult for it to meet the expectations created by the extraordinary number that’s floating around in its ether. These market conditions are fantastic for uber-wealthy collectors, for a very small number of artists anointed as good bets and only a handful of mega-major conglomerate galleries. Emerging and mid-tier galleries who might actually be focusing on young or under-recognized talent and thinking outside of market forces about what makes for good art, in general, don’t have access to these collectors. And very many good artists are not represented by galleries, and can’t even approach this level of the art world.

How do we define ‘value’ in contemporary art? Who’s buying these works? And how are vast sums affecting new artists and their craft?

We talk with Urist Green and Vanity Fair contributing editor Michael Shnayerson.

Show produced by Bianca Martin. Text by Kathryn Fink.

Guests

  • Michael Shnayerson Contributing editor, Vanity Fair; author, "BOOM: Mad Money, Mega Dealers, and the Rise of Contemporary Art" and "The Car That Could"; @mbshnay
  • Alvin Hall TV and radio broadcaster; art collector; financial educator; @alvin_d_hall
  • Sarah Urist Green Creator, PBS' "The Art Assignment"; former museum curator

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