The case of the fake Gaugin

The art market produces some mind bending meditations on what, exactly, prices represent. These are not, mind you, original meditations, so I will not overtax your patience with a lengthy post. I merely point you to this article, which comes via the Cranky Professor, on a forged Gaugin sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. He highlights this passage:

So why was it that no one seems to have questioned the Gauguin? The sculpture appeared to be based on a tiny drawing of a faun sculpture in a sketchbook which the artist used in Martinique in 1887. A work entitled “Faun” was also listed in a Gauguin exhibition held at the Nunès and Fiquet gallery in Paris in 1917. These references are noted in Christopher Gray’s Gauguin sculpture catalogue (1963) and Merete Bodelsen’s authoritative study of Gauguin’s ceramics (1964).

It seems that the Greenhalghs set out to recreate this missing sculpture. What is astonishing is that they were able to design and fire such a successful stoneware forgery, which had no obvious features to reveal it as a modern fake. Ms Howie, an experienced dealer, was originally captivated by the work: “We lived with it, and I cannot tell you what pleasure it gave us. It was a wonderful object.”

The object itself has in no way changed; it is still just as amazing, or not, as it always was. But their pleasure in it is radically altered. My intuitions tend to all run the other way. Of course, I spent a great deal of time studying finance and the associated dark arts, where the value of an asset is supposed to be the expected value of its future cash flows; and the value of a non-financial asset is supposed to be at least largely determined by its inherent usefulness.

But even before that, I was a lit major, where your enjoyment of a work is supposed to be focused on the work's attributes, not its provenance. A first edition of Bleak House may sell for 100 times what you would pay for a knock-off at Barnes and Noble. But you are not supposed to get 100 times the enjoyment out of reading Bleak House in first edition that you get out of the Modern Library version. Perhaps the right comparison is authorship, but even that doesn't really work; "undiscovered" works by famous authors almost always sell very poorly, because there is usually a very good reason that the artist didn't submit them to the public.

I acknowlege that people pay an enormous amount of money simply for the pleasure of imagining that Gaugin's hands once touched the sculpture they so love. But I'm afraid I don't quite understand why.