Even Better Than the Real Thing: Why 3D Printed Replicas Benefit Visual Artists
Sparked by a brief post by Tyler Cowen, last week Izabella Kaminska of the Financial Times and Felix Salmon of Reuters debated one another via blog posts and Twitter (scroll down to the 29th of August) over the financial effect of increasingly accurate 3D printing on fine art. The central question can be summarized as follows: When technology allows for the creation of perfect replicas of the world’s greatest artworks, does that make the originals more or less valuable?
Kaminska asserts that the answer is “less.” Her central point is that the vast majority of a unique artwork’s value lies in its extreme scarcity. If we can duplicate the Mona Lisa down to the texture of each brush stroke, seeing the replica should provide the same aesthetic value as seeing the original; as a result, the painting actually rendered by Leonardo’s hand effectively ceases to be one of a kind. By the simple calculus of supply and demand then, the original should instantly become less financially valuable the moment the first of these “perfect” copies is complete, and its value should degrade further and further with each successive perfect copy produced. In Kaminska’s view, Leonardo’s original can only be regarded as more valuable than these flawless 3D duplicates if one willfully and artificially assigns the original a kind of “sacred relic” status, in which the human creator’s direct involvement somehow elevates the original to a higher plane (and thus, a higher price point). Doing so, she argues, would be nothing more than a Jedi mind trick executed by snobs and elitists for their own benefit. (Editor’s note: These characters make up a disproportionate percentage of the art world, so their influence on this issue shouldn’t be underestimated.)
Salmon respectfully takes the opposing view of the issue. The essence of his argument is that Kaminska is judging fine art by the same standards as most other commodities, when in fact the market dynamics at work in the art world are fundamentally different. Selling and valuing fine art is not the same as doing so for, say, computers or minivans. Mythology matters. The mythology of the artist as creative genius; of the artwork as an irreplaceable object; of the intrinsic value of the original idea. If mythology didn’t matter, Salmon points out, then technically masterful “replicas” of important works that have been manually created for centuries by people who are not the original artist would be treated as valuable commodities themselves. Instead, they’re branded as “forgeries” or “fakes” - labels whose derogatory nature probably makes it redundant for me to relay that the value of these objects is basically zero. Salmon then goes on to raise some insightful points about the effect of replication on visual artists’ production and the move toward visual art as experience, but those are issues for another day and another blog post, though I encourage you to read his piece if you’re interested.
I side with Salmon in this debate. Kaminska’s logic is sound. The problem is that, as Salmon points out, she’s applying logic to an asset class that defies the usual rules of economics. But I think there’s another interesting question built into this debate, which neither Kaminska nor Salmon dives into: Does the rapidly approaching advent of perfect replication create any new benefits for visual artists? I believe that it does. And I take that position because of an aspect of art economics that is almost never discussed - namely, licensing.
To me, the most brutally unfair aspect of becoming a successful visual artist is the total lack of compensation for the resale of one’s own work. In general, artists are only paid a commission on the initial sale of any piece they produce. If the initial buyer later sells the artwork to another client, in almost all cases, none - literally, 0.00% - of the sales proceeds funnel back to the artist. This is true no matter how high the resale price is, or how many times a piece is resold. To highlight what that means to an artist, consider this hypothetical scenario for a moment: An original Combine work that Robert Rauschenberg may have sold for rent money in the early 1960s could realistically fetch a price in the $10MM-20MM range at auction this fall. Should that happen, Rauschenberg’s estate earns the same amount from the sale as your nearest panhandler.
Technically, California is the only state in the U.S. that tried to protect artists from this financial asymmetry. They enacted the California Resale Royalty Act in 1976 - a provision meant to secure the artist a percentage of the proceeds from each resale of their original work if either the transaction is conducted in California, or the artist is a California resident at the time it takes place. However, the law was ruled unconstitutional in a California district court in 2012, and even before that, I can tell you from my firsthand experience in the contemporary art world that the law was effectively useless. There simply wasn’t any tangible mechanism to police it. Although I’m sure there were a few exceptions in those 36 years, the vast majority of galleries and private clients alike captured every cent of profit from their resales during that span, while the artists or their estates were left to kick rocks.
That leaves licensing as one of the only ways that an artist or her estate can financially benefit from her own work after its initial sale. Although the buyer of a unique fine artwork acquires the right to resell that work at a later date, she does not acquire the right to either lawfully reproduce it herself, or to sell that right to a third party. The Artists Rights Society represents over 50,000 artists worldwide on this front. The organization’s primary function is to control and police licensing of original works in any form - books, memorabilia, even replicas created for feature films - on behalf of their clients. The licensing fees vary dramatically depending on a number of factors. In general, though, the more exposure the reproduction will receive, the greater the number of reproductions, and/or the more costly the replica(s) will be if sold as an officially sanctioned product, the more lucrative the licensing fee is for the artist or her estate.
Flawless 3D-printed duplicates of original artworks are expensive commodities. Cowen’s post focuses on The Van Gogh Museum’s use of a 3D printing technique to create licensed, three-dimensional replicas of five unique Van Gogh paintings in limited editions of 260 each, at a per-unit cost of GBP 22,000.00 (~$34,000.00). Obviously, these next generation replicas are enormously more expensive than even the best two-dimensional souvenir posters… which in turn should mean that vastly more money goes to Van Gogh’s estate from each sale. As 3D printing gets more and more refined over the coming years, so too will the fine art duplicates achievable through the technology. These increasingly perfect licensed replicas should only increase in price - provided the quantity of their editions are managed intelligently. And all of this will be done without a deleterious effect on the prices being paid for the original works themselves.
This may still be cold comfort to successful visual artists. If I were one myself, I would regularly sacrifice bone marrow in exchange for an effective, globally enforcible resale royalty law. That said, I would also welcome the licensing fees and/or royalties from official 3D replicas priced at five figures each. It’s far from a perfect deal, but this technology may just have created the most dramatic pro-artist shift in the market’s financial landscape in many years.