Famous Artist + Iconic Painting = High Prices

This morning I spoke to Amy Cappellazzo, co-head of the postwar and contemporary

art department at Christie’s, to ask her about Richard

Prince’s Nurse paintings. How come one sold in London in October for $2.1

million, and then one sold in New York in November for $6.1 million, and then

a third sold in New York a couple of days later for $4.3 million?

Turns out, that’s an easy question: it’s all to do with the size of the paintings.

The Nurse paintings come in four sizes, and the $6.1 million painting was the

largest – 90 inches tall. That’s huge. The $4.3 million painting

was smaller, and the $2.1 million painting was smaller still – although

still pretty sizeable, at 47" tall.

But while the narrow question is easily answered, the bigger question remains

– how come Prince, who made his name and reputation with rephotographed

conceptual pieces, is now getting the highest prices of his career for old-fashioned

painting, valued on its intrinsic aesthetic merit?

Prince "has great painterly abilities," said Cappellazzo, saying

that "the nurse paintings were him showing off his abilities". Besides,

she said, they’re "incredibly iconic: everybody looks at them and loves


I’m half convinced: I do see that Prince is a very good painter, but then again

there’s no shortage of very good painters in this world. What makes Prince important,

art-historically speaking, is his early conceptual work, not his later outsized

paintings. And it’s only because of that early work that he can now command

these multi-million-dollar prices.

But maybe that doesn’t matter. Famous Artist + Iconic Painting = High Prices,

even if the artist isn’t famous for being a painter. Indeed, look at Jeff Koons’s

paintings: they too go for millions of dollars, despite the fact that Koons

has never even pretended to be able to paint.

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