As Kelly looked for paintings in her garage, she asked me a simple question: how will you know when you have traded up?
‘Well’, I said, in a confident tone, ‘there are different ways.’
‘Like what?’ Kelly asked.
‘I could, umm, see what it is worth on the market.’
‘But what if it hasn’t been sold? Or what if the market value doesn’t reflect its quality?’
And with just a few questions, Kelly had exposed a soft underbelly of my plan. It is easy to see why a snowmobile is worth more than a red paper clip. But it is not nearly so easy to see why a Van Gogh is worth more than a Turner or a Manet. Or, to make the point more local, it is not so easy to see why the paintings that Kelly has are worth more than the Dominic original.
Having been asked such an important question, I countered with a lame response: I guess I’ll just have to see whether I like it.
Ugh. Is that it? Is that all I can say about whether I have traded up? Is it really a matter of my looking at some piece of art and, just as if I were Homer Simpson, saying ‘I like that one’?
This problem only got worse once I saw the painting that I eventually traded for. When I saw it, I was immediately struck by it and thought to myself – no way will Kelly trade me that one for the Dominic. But Kelly told me emphatically that she hated it, which made trading for it seem like a good deal for both of us.
Our transaction, however, suddenly made me a little worried. In fact, shortly after leaving Kelly’s house, I began to engage in a bizarre philosophical thought experiment.
Maybe Kelly got the better deal after all. Maybe Dominic’s original is the greatest work ever produced and in my attempt to end up with a supposed masterpiece I have in fact embarked on a long process of trading down. After all, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, maybe the beholders will eventually judge Dominic’s drawing to be the pinnacle of artistic progress.
But that is only the first question Kelly raised about my plan. She had another even more difficult question.
I’ll wait until next time, however, to tell you what that question is.