William F. Buckley
Upcoming art auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in Manhattan are hugely noticed in the Arts section of The New York Times. Two Picassos are especially prominent. The first is labeled "Dora Maar With Cat," and it is expected to fetch $50 million. The second, called "Repose," is even uglier, and is expected to go for about $20 million.

The display raises several questions, the first of them being the interesting one, Why would anyone wish to own these Picassos? There is only a single answer to the question, which is, "Because they are so valuable." Imagine a situation in which you woke to find in the morning mail a package containing "Dora Maar." It is yours, with a single condition attached: You are not permitted to sell it.

What would you do? Call your friends and say, "Come on over to my house, and I will show you a painting by Picasso that auctioned for $50 million"?

The unhappy part of the deal is that in order to show it to your friends, you would have to hang it. To do that would ruin any composure that room ever generated for you. The only solution would be to devise a curtain to shield it from sight except when you pull down the cord, exposing the hideous agglomeration of eyes, mouths, fingers and -- yes, a black cat.

On the matter of the value of such as "Dora Maar," one recalls the wry economist who wrote of the phenomenon. A man arrives at U.S. Customs with an oil painting. It's only worth a couple of hundred bucks, he says. But the customs officer shakes his head: "I know a Picasso when I see one!" He wants a couple of million in import duties. The traveler appeals, and the canvas is shown to five art experts. Three of them say that it is genuine, two that it is fake. It is therefore worth $10 million, by a majority of one.

The viewer, who is inexpert, sees the same picture. The reason the genuine article brings crowds in from the streets to admire it isn't that it is manifestly unique. It is that it's worth $10 million. The economist permitted himself to wonder whether as many people might not be induced into that room in the museum if, exhibited in the same space, were $10 million in $100 bills.

William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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