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Real rothko, fake rothko

Jay Livingston writes:

I know that in art, quality and value are two very different things. Still, I had to stop and wonder when I read about

Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, who in 2004 paid $8.3 million for a painting attributed to Mark Rothko that they now say is a worthless fake.

One day a painting is worth $8.3 million; the next day, the same painting – same quality, same capacity to give aesthetic pleasure or do whatever it is that art does – is “worthless.”* Art forgery also makes me wonder about the buyer’s motive. If the buyer wanted only to have and to gaze upon something beautiful, something with artistic merit, then a fake Rothko is no different than a real Rothko. It seems more likely that what the buyer wants is to own something valuable – i.e., something that costs a lot. Displaying your brokerage account statements is just too crude and obvious. What the high-end art market offers is a kind of money laundering. Objects that are rare and therefore expensive, like a real Rothko, transform money into something more acceptable – personal qualities like good taste, refinement, and sophistication.

I’m in sympathy with Livingston’s general point—I too am happy to mock people who happen to have more money than I do—and Rothko’s art has always seemed pretty pointless to me. I mean, sure, it can look fine on the wall, but it hardly seems like something special to me.

But I think Livingston’s going too far, in that he’s forgetting the natural human desire not to get ripped off.

Let’s set Rothko aside and consider something I really want: a 10-hour clock:

I’m interested in this not because I’m some sort of French-revolution buff but just because I love clocks. We have a 24-hour clock, a backwards clock (I took a regular old-style AC wall clock and flipped around a plastic gear), and a clock where the big hand does the hours and the little hand does the minutes (which I made by sawing off the end of the big hand and gluing it onto the end of the little hand; amazingly enough, it looks just fine, you don’t notice the join at all), and a neon (actually, one of those other gases, the green one, argon maybe?) diner-style clock that says Probability on the top and Statistics on the bottom. So when I saw the 10-hours-a-day, 100-minutes-an-hour, 100-seconds-a-minute clock in the Museé des Arts et Métiers, I had to have it.

Malheureusement, there aren’t a lot of these clocks floating around, and they cost a lot. But suppose I find a beat-up one of these and decide to plunk down $10,000 for it and proudly place it on my wall, partly for the joy of having a 10-hour clock to look at, and partly for the thrill of having this old object. Then some art expert comes by our apartment and tells me it’s a fake. Damn right I’d be mad! Not because the clock is “a form of money laundering” but because somebody ripped me off.


  1. darf ferrara says:

    Errol Morris had a great series of posts related to this topic here. It discusses the Vermeer art forgeries.

  2. Gary says:

    Since you’ve already modded clocks to run backwards and swap the hands, couldn’t you just make a 10-hour face for a clock? Doesn’t seem that hard.

    • Andrew says:


      The 10-hour face is no big deal, the challenge is getting the minute hand to go around 10 times a day, and getting the second hand to go around 1000 times a day.

  3. Rodney Sparapani says:

    Hi Andrew:

    I have been fantasizing about metric time since I was a kid (and metric calendars). I can see that the second and minute hands would require new machinery. But, do you need a minute hand at all? Can’t you read the minute roughly off of the hour hand? Ok, so it’s plus/minus 5 minutes, but I can live with that. My mother has been setting the clocks ahead 15 minutes my whole life anyways (it’s always bar time at my parents house ;o)


  4. Louis says:

    The clock fascination is a great quirk to have!

  5. Peter says:

    There’s a nice paper by George Newman and Paul Bloom showing that two factors contribute to people’s appreciation of original art (vs. forgeries). One is the association with the creative act (the original is the result of some sort of performance) and the other factor is that the artist had physical contact with the original artwork (“Picasso actually touched it”). If one or the other is missing the object loses its value. So there may be other motives than only conspicuous consumption.

  6. Tom says:

    I quite like the idea of putting together an R package that would display any desired type of clock as an updating graphic. I am wondering if this sort of thing might be easier with Python or some other language but don’t really know enough to have any idea. I think that the R function would be fun to do. Clearly not as valuable or timeless as a genuine French Revolution timepiece but it would certainly be one way to find a use for an old pc.

  7. Both the factors in the Newman/Bloom explanation might also be related to market forces, specifically scarcity, rather than (or in addition to) the magical-thinking/contagion factor. The baseball that Barry Bonds hit for #73 is indistinguishable from #72 or from the baseball you can buy for less than $20 in a store. What makes it worth so much is in part its connection with Bonds — the mana of Bonds at his supreme moment has been magically transferred to the ball. But the other part of the price is supply and demand. The supply is one.

    Thought experiment. Suppose that the metric clock (or whatever your preferred recherché item is) that you paid $10,000 for is real. But now suppose that someone has discovered a cache of similar clocks from that era, thousands and thousands of them. The market value falls to $50. Would your feelings about your own clock be different? It’s still a 10-hour clock, and it’s still old.

    • Andrew says:


      If I bought the clock for $10,000 and then it turned out that a cache of similar clocks was discovered, bringing the price down to $50, I’d feel some regret (that I paid so much) but I wouldn’t feel ripped off, and I’d have just as much enjoyment as before. In fact, when I first heard about those clocks, I somehow thought it wouldn’t be hard to find one for a couple hundred bucks, and that would’ve been fine with me. My goals here are, in order: (1) to have a 10-hour, 100-minute, 100-second clock, and (2) for it to look nice. If it could also be an antique, that would be even better, but that’s really a distant #3 for me.

  8. Mark Palko says:

    For an entertaining take on a similar topic, check out Lawrence Block’s The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian.

  9. Shaun says:


    You’re also forgetting another reason the De Sole’s may be angry. A lot of people buy original art not for its aesthetic value (alone), but as a long term investment. Because there is a finite supply of original art from famous artists, it tends to appreciate in valuable at a decent rate. This may not be involved in the motives here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was at least part of the issue.

  10. I now remember a Malamud story, “Naked Nude.” If I remember correctly, an American painter in Italy is engaged by some crooks to paint an identical copy of a Titian that they can substitute for the real painting and steal the real one. And I have a couple of related anecdotes on my own blog .

    • Andrew says:

      This has come up before. I think these are just relabeled 60-minute, 60-second clocks. The clock I want, the minute hand does 10 revolutions a day, and the second hand does 1000 revolutions a day.

  11. Goutham says:

    Art is heavily about context. Even our aesthetic sensibilities are mostly about context, leaving aside golden ratios et al for the moment. In information theoretic terms, part of the value of art is in the Kolmogorov complexity required to generate a piece. Creation of a Rothko from pure imagination given the artist’s context and the world he grew up in has Kolmogorov complexity that is hugely larger than that of a mere copy. Let’s say we discover that the beautiful and greatly admired cave paintings at Lascaux are fakes, some kids made them; many generations later when people are no longer pissed about being conned, will they still admire the paintings the way we do? Why not?

  12. Åse Innes-Ker says:

    Yes, Paul Blooms take on this is quite wonderful. I would recommend his book How Pleasure Works which goes into quite some detail why (he thinks) we value originals, and get upset when we find that something is a fake. Duncan Watts also discusses some of the ideas of why we think we like something in “everything is obvious once you know the answer”, although that one doesn’t deal with the change in feeling after forgery, but what it is that makes something seem valuable and good in the first place.

  13. Fernando says:

    Emperor Charles V was also crazy about clocks.

    In between killing heretics, fighting wars, and creating an empire he’ll spend his quiet time deconstructing clocks and putting them back together again.

    He was not a clock collector so much as a clock hobbyist.

  14. Abhimanyu Arora says:

    I think both Livingston’s and Andrew’s point can simply be reconciled by the statement–deriving utility (placing value on) not from the object but on *owning a valuable object*. Now how the *valuable object* is defined is different. In Andrew’s specific case, the object is valuable because he himself gets happiness out of owning clocks. In Livingston’s it is not clear whether the owner of the painting really is an art connoisseur or one of the nouveau riche.

  15. Steve Sailer says:

    “the natural human desire not to get ripped off.”

    Good point. Professional criminals can calculate just how much they can steal before it’s in their victims’ rational self-interest to strike back. But, the occasional victim who is just plain ornery and won’t let the bastards get away with it does everybody a big favor.