Friday, May 2, 2014

Valuing the Past -- Two Stories on the Same Day in the New York Times

I was intrigued to see these two articles in the Times on the same day -- one looking at the story of valued historic objects that were repatriated from the U.S. back to their countries of origin, and another, in the business section, wondering what will happen to the value of diamonds, or works of art, as we see the spread of new technology that allows for almost perfect copies of rare, and therefore, expensive jewelry and works of art.  Robert Frank, the Cornell business professor wrote the latter piece, predicts that over the long term we may see a decline in the value of the original, when it is indistinguishable from a copy.

I am not so sure. We are have been, for a couple of decades in an era when it was been increasingly easy to access near-perfect reproductions of works of art, in remarkable detail on the web and in hard copies, and have only seen the prices of original works of art rise. Museums, whose works are increasingly available on the web, and which allow visitors to take photographs of their collections (and presumably immediately post them to Facebook and Flickr), have seen attendance grow.  The "work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction," as Walter Benjamin's piece was titled, has not become devalued, but rather revalued -- upward.  It is the paradox of availability:  the more readily available it is, the more we value that which we can call "authentic."

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