The psychology behind the appeal of original artwork

Why do we place such value on original works of art? Consider The Disciples at Emmaus - believed to be an original Vermeer, it was held in high esteem and sold in 1937 for £1.8 million. Later exposed as a piece by master forger Van Meegeren, however, and its value plummeted overnight.

You could say that we covet originals because of the value that wider society places on them. But that just pushes the question back - why does anyone value originals in the first place? And why with art so much more than other manufactured items?

In a new study, George Newman and Paul Bloom have tested at least two possible explanations - one is that we value original art work because of the originality of the creative performance that led to it; the other is that we feel an original piece is somehow infused with the unique essence of the artist, much like we cherish mundane items that once belonged to a rock star or other celebrity.

In one of Newman and Bloom's five experiments, 180 participants were asked to estimate the value of two paintings they hadn't seen before, both depicting the same scene (one was Son of a Covered Bridge, the other was A Covered Bridge, both by Jim Rilko). Half the participants were told that two different artists had painted the same scene by coincidence. The other participants were told that one artist had produced one of the paintings, and that another artist had seen it and decided to make a copy. All participants were told that there was only one of each painting in existence.

Participants who thought that two paintings had been produced of the same scene by coincidence tended to rate them as having a similar value. By contrast, participants who thought one painting was a copy of the other, tended to value that second painting especially low, and to value the first version of the scene especially high. This shows how we appreciate the originality of the creative performance behind a painting.

In the final experiment, 256 participants read about either a sculptor or a craftsman and their work creating either a bronze sculpture or a piece of furniture, respectively. For the participants who read about the sculptor, those who heard that the process was very hands-on tended to rate the value of the sculpture much more highly than those who read that the creative process was hands-off (involving machinery). By contrast, this distinction made far less difference to the valuations made by the participants who read about the craftsman's work.

In other words, participants placed more value on the bronze sculpture when they thought the artist had touched it more with his own hands, almost as though infusing it with his essence. This effect was enhanced further for participants who read a version of the vignette in which the sculptor made just one copy of his sculpture.

So when we cherish an original piece of art, it seems we do so partly because we value, not just the end product, but the originality of the performance that created it. Moreover, we believe that the work has a special quality about it because it came from the very hand of a particular artist. Copies and forgeries, no matter how close to the original, fall down on both these counts.

"We hope that the research here will engender interest on the broad topic of art within psychology," the researchers said, "as well as more specific questions regarding the role of authenticity in judgments of value."


Newman GE, & Bloom P (2012). Art and authenticity: The importance of originals in judgments of value. Journal of experimental psychology. General, 141 (3), 558-69 PMID: 22082113

-Further reading- A brain-imaging paper published last year reported that the same works of art triggered different brain activity depending on whether they were labelled as authentic or as copies.

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.
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