Worth Reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art


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Ever wonder how the world of multi-million dollar art works? Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art will amaze you and give you an insight into the art business of today.

You’ll find out how the great art houses, famous art collectors, and the creations of both contemporary artists and old masters fit into an economic system that sees soaring valuations.

Who created the shark, by the way? You’ll find out.

About the Author

Professor Don Thompson has built a career exploring art economics. While affiliated with Canada’s York University, he has also taught at Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. He is best known for his widely available books including:

  • The Curious Economics of Luxury Fashion: Millennials, Influencers, and a Pandemic
  • The Orange Balloon Dog: Bubbles and Disruptions in the Contemporary Art Market
  • The Supermodel and the Brillo Box: Backstories from the Curious World of Contemporary Art
  • The $12 Million Stuff Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Artorary Art

Keeping in mind that Thompson’s book is primarily about the art economy (an economy where buyers feel a great deal of uncertainty), the roles of the various participants need to be understood.

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

Who Are the Players in the Art Economy?


Creators of various types produce works including paintings, sculptures, and other moveable pieces that may change hands many times over. Typically, the artist receives payment when the is sold for the first time. Over time, the prices for new pieces may go up if older pieces are reselling for higher prices/appreciating.


Various resellers of art that provide marketing and sales assistance to artists and guidance to collectors. Dealers, especially with known brands, are helpful in lending credibility to an artist and driving sales up over time. Some of the better-known dealers run galleries and prefer to be called gallerists. An artist who has shown in a gallery or is being represented by a dealer has a certain stamp of approval that helps collectors feel more comfortable paying higher prices.

Some of those that prominently feature in the book include Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian.

Auction Houses

With perhaps the best-known brands, the major auction houses including Sotheby’s and Christie’s provide the events where art transactions that make the news occur, and thus supercharge an artist’s renown. Pieces that change hands for millions of dollars and generate similarly enormous commissions are powered by the auction houses.


There are various personas for the actual purchasers of art. Those that have renown themselves add additional credibility to an artist: famous art collectors, celebrities, hedge fund managers, titans of business, etc.

Art Critics

Sitting between mainstream media and the other players in the art ecosystem, art critics provide commentary on the news of the art economy. When a famous piece sells at a high price, an art critic may say it was too high or too low. An art critic may predict an up-and-coming artist has a bright future.


Museums add credibility to any artist whose work passes through their doors, whether via a loan or as part of a permanent collection. Although typically not run for profit, via their donors, museums also act as purchasers.

What Can an Artist Expect to Learn from This Book?

In addition to an understanding of the players (and their goals) in the art economy, an artist will get an appreciation of the various stages through which living artists of significant wealth passed.

You’ll have a better understanding of how contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst (who happens to have the shark as the most prominent piece on his website), Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, Robert Rauschenberg, Francis Bacon, and others became the names they are today.

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You’ll also pick up some tips on branding and marketing as well as a better understanding of your future fans.

You can find The $12 Million Stuffed Shark on major retail sights such as Amazon.

What Has Changed Since Publication in 2010?

The digital side of the art economy is becoming more and more prominent.

NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) were not around when The $12 Million Stuffed Shark was published.

More tools such as ETChster that assist with questions of provenance and authenticity are available.

We’re starting to see more emphasis on digital art and art that might only be experienced in the metaverse (digital worlds).

We’re also starting to see art collecting among the middle-class pick up as Covid-19 and economic shifts make it more important to have an amazingly well-decorated home.

A new form of art collector now exists. Investment funds that sell shares and purchase famous pieces of art speculating that their value will continue to go up now exist.

Lastly, Don Thompson and many other authors, teachers and economists are working to make the art economy and art business more understandable to those who want to work within it.

What Is the $12 Million Stuffed Shark?

The book’s title is a reference to one of the more famous transactions of the 2000s. Artist Damien Hirst taxidermied a Tiger Shark in a glass tank and titled it The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. The piece is important for the price and the precedent it set for the work of livings artists (who can always produce more art). The story of the piece is fascinating. Read the book to learn more!

If you’re an ETChster community member, be sure you transfer your Etchings when you make a sale so that the purchaser has a free art collecting app.

What’s Next?

Did you:

  • Have follow-up questions?
  • Have other related thoughts that might be beneficial to the community?

Post them in the comments!

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Eddie Davis

Back in 2018, Eddie decided there had to be a better way. He a baby on the way and a house full of original art from his ancestors. So he started building an art collecting app to catalog each piece and capture its story. And then he started buying (or trying to buy) original art in his home town of Atlanta, Georgia, United States and quickly discovered that nearly all artists had broken, out-of-date websites and made it nearly impossible to buy their work. So he connected his catalog app to a maintenance-free artist website. Somewhere in the middle, crypto NFTs exploded and then imploded, and the ETChster global community grew to ~15,000 artists and art collectors of all walks of life. Et cetera...