Banksy, Fushimiya and the Value of a Teacup
As I’m sure most people have read that this past weekend, a print called Girl with Red Balloon by the pop-artist Banksy sold for over $1.4M. After the final gavel, the print shredded right out of the frame. Most people watching the viral video showing the astonished faces in the auction house, laughed out loud. It represents a small moment of revenge against the pompous art world and super-rich art buyers.
Subconsciously, it was also a collective whelp of protest against modern art that so exemplifies this extravagance for many people around the world. While they toil and save for every penny, art seems to have become so simplistic, banal, and consequently, overvalued. Perhaps one explanation can be found in the 17th century, back when most of these same people can agree that art was still respectable.
At the end of the 17th Century, an antique dealer in Tokyo named Fushimiya, stopped at a tea house for a cup of tea. Upon finishing the cup, he noticed something odd about the way the cup collected steam around its edge so he offered to buy it in addition to paying for the tea. A local artisan who had witnessed this, ran after him and begged Fushimiya to sell him the cup. If a respected antique dealer thought enough to pay for it, it must be worth more than it seemed. The dealer laughed, told him it was just an ordinary cup of no value, and just gave him the cup.
The artisan considered this a generosity from a wealthy person of stature rather than a dismissal of the cup. He still believed it to be highly valuable. So he tried to peddle it to other dealers, but to no avail – for them it was an unremarkable teacup of no particular craftmanship or artistry. He spent a long time trying to find a buyer, even risking his artisan shop and going completely bankrupt. He was so convinced that the cup had greater value that he became obsessed to prove it. After much hardship, he finally sought out Fushimiya. The antique dealer took pity on the poor man and being reasonably wealthy himself, he offered to purchase the cup back from him for a small sum.
The artisan was overjoyed. He was right, the cup had a higher value. Not only did he sell it at a handsome profit, but he was now assured that all the other dealers were wrong in refusing it. he was not shy in retelling the story from his own perspective. Word spread fast of the mystery teacup that must have such significant value that only experts could recognize it. Dealers from all over Japan offered sought out the antique dealer with offers to purchase the teacup. Fushimiya tried to explain the story, but few would listen and the mystery of the teacup only grew with every retelling. Fushimiya must be hiding something about it.
Eventually, to put an end to the drama, Fushimiya put the cup up for auction. As the auction proceeded, two bidders had a dispute over it and the cup was knocked off the auction table and shattered. The auction was cancelled without a sale. Fushimiya dutifully swept up the broken pieces and returned home. There, he quietly glued the cup back together, stored it in a safe place, and tried to forget about the whole experience.
By now, though, the story had become even more mysterious. Rumors continued to spread, and the value of the teacup continued to grow. One day, years later, the famous (and very wealthy) tea master and art collector Matsudaira Fumai visited Fushimiya’s antique store. After the latter told him the entire story of the (in)famous teacup, the tea famous master smiled from ear to ear. He was undaunted by the tale and purchased the teacup for an unbelievably high sum.
That was over 200 years ago.
What would this particular teacup bring at auction today? The cup itself is just ordinary with nothing particularly valuable, artsy or innovative to differentiate it. It was even shattered and glued back together again. It is hardly functional as a cup anymore. Yet, it is likely that at auction today this particular teacup would fetch thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars.
This is because the collector who purchases it is no longer buying a simple teacup, but rather the entire history of it: the entertaining story of why the antique dealer originally purchased it, the artisan who became obsessed with it, how it grew in value despite Fushimiya’s protests, the places the cup had been, the shattering and gluing back together, the many people who inquired about it, the reasons Fushimiya kept it for so long, and ultimately the recognition by a renowned collector. It is the sum of these stories that now make up the value of the cup.
This is also how many pieces of art, even modern abstract ones, increase in value over time. Most people around the world will not select Van Gogh’s Sunflowers as one of his most beautiful pieces. They will sneer disapprovingly at the cigarette butt embedded in Pollock’s 1947 Full Fathom Five. They will scoff at Duchamp’s infamous LHOOQ postcard as vulgar and cheap. Yet, all these incredible pieces of art have an interesting story that makes them much more than a jaundiced still-life, splattering of paint on a canvas, or a defaced postcard. Just as with the worthless teacup, the true value of something is the totality of how it came before us.
Advertisers understand this phenomenon very well. It isn’t about selling a product, but rather about selling a story that surrounds the product. It is the process of allowing the customer to live vicariously in the story, and convincing her or him that together with the product, they are writing a new story about them that cannot be written separate from the product.
This is why a car salesperson insists on having the customer drive the car they are selling. This is so that the customer can better imagine themselves in it, so that they see others look on enviously as they speed by, and so that they can feel the power under the hood with all their senses. The entire purchase becomes an induction into a whole new chapter in the customer’s life. As one BMW salesman once told me about the brand: “you aren’t buying a car, you are buying a lifestyle.”
On its own, the product is just a car, an abstract picture, or a broken teacup. However, when it is presented in an amazing origin story, one that the customer/client is being offered a scant chance to be part of, then it gains value well beyond the original cost to produce it.
Consider this the next time you propose a new project to a client, sell a widget to a customer, or present your idea to an audience. Tell a story that makes the product indispensable to success, and the product will seamlessly grow in value in direct proportion to the story being told about it.
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As for the Girl with Red Balloon, even half-shredded, it will sell for well over $1.4M in a few short years. This is because of the story that this supposed hoax has created around itself. In effect, every time we click on that video to laugh in glee at the astonished art bidders aghast as the art is “destroyed,” we continue to increase the value of this otherwise rather plain print. In essence, the story of Girl with Red Balloon is still being written and may never be completed. I’m sure that the artist as well as the buyer are both laughing all the way to the Banksy.
This blog post was previously published in The Gigster 'Zine, our free newsletter discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.