Earlier this week I was introduced to the trailer for BBC Films’ upcoming feature The Woman in Gold, a screen dramatization of Holocaust survivor Maria Altmann’s real life efforts to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s renowned portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, from Austria’s state-owned Belvedere Gallery. Altmann, Bloch-Bauer’s niece, was named as an heir to the painting in her uncle’s will, but the Nazis seized the piece–along with four other Klimts–from the family’s home in Vienna in 1938. The Third Reich later installed the portrait at the Belvedere and made the institution its formal owner through some convenient interpretations of competing legal documents.
The movie charts Altmann’s seven-year courtroom cage match against the Republic of Austria, and it’s being marketed as your classic underdog tale of truth, justice, and art’s relationship to both. For this reason, I assume The Woman in Gold climaxes with the Austrian judges’ decision to award Altmann the painting rather than with Altmann and the other heirs’ decision to sell it for $135M only a few months after it was legally returned to the family. Not exactly a snug fit with the pure-hearted ideals and grand swells of emotion featured in the trailer, but certainly not a move I’m going to criticize.
I bring all this up because, together, Adele Bloch-Bauer I and The Woman in Gold highlight the stark contrast between the formulas needed for financial success in mass culture (e.g. studio movies) and the “high culture” of fine art. No matter how much mainstream publicity the art market invites today, it’s still a niche business. A gallery or consultant can survive–even thrive–for years off sales to the right five to 10 collectors. An artist can sometimes do the same off a single patron–all thanks to the dramatically higher price of the product being exchanged.
Adele Bloch-Bauer I is a textbook example of fine art’s extreme economics. William Booth of The Washington Post reported in 2006 that only 15 “serious potential buyers” for the portrait emerged–a figure he sourced from Steven Thomas, the attorney who negotiated the sale on the heirs’ behalf. It’s a crude metric, but the math means that each one of those “serious potential buyers” could be said to have contributed about $9M to the piece’s final sale price. Not a bad per-customer average, right?
Ironically, the movie based on Adele Bloch-Bauer I’s history faces a far more treacherous trail to profitability. I can’t confirm The Woman in Gold’s production budget, but let’s generously assume it only (“only”) cost $10M to make. (My guess is that it’s actually somewhere between $30M-$50M.) Let’s then generously assume that the average cost of a movie ticket is $10–and even more generously pretend that the full ticket price goes directly back to the studio every time.
Those insanely liberal estimates would mean that BBC Films needs a cool million customers to see The Woman in Gold just to break even. And if they wanted to match the total for the sale of the titular artwork itself, they would need to entice 135 million customers to come to the theater. That’s a tall order, especially for a courtroom drama about the fate of an inanimate object most people have never heard of.
Now, if you were a profit-minded businessman, which of those two propositions would seem more appealing to you?
Then once you answer, ask yourself if it’s any wonder that we’re in the the rabid, money-stacking art market we’re in.