Letter from Washington: Thomas Kinkade and the futility of art speculation

by Eli Lehrer on April 10, 2012

In the human sense, I’m terribly sorry that self-styled “painter of light” Thomas Kinkade has died. I feel for his family and know that he supported worthwhile charities. And I’m hopeful that the people who worked for him and at galleries displaying his work prosper even without him around. The man, if nothing else, created jobs. In my book, nobody who does that leaves an altogether bad legacy.

That said, and even though I once ironically purchased a Thomas Kinkade myself, I would posit that Kinkade’s work is crap. He has no talent whatsoever in painting the human figure—something his supposed role model Norman Rockwell did as well as any other 20th Century painter—and most of his work is so trite, cloying and sugary that I’m afraid of getting cavities when I look at it. His company was also found liable for fraud by an arbitration panel.

Furthermore—and here’s where an insurance angle comes in—it’s pretty clear that none of the more expensive stuff he sold is likely to ever be worth what it cost at retail. And this fact, more than anything else, has been a point of near-glee for the liberal media. The Washington Post actually concludes its obituary by mentioning it.

And that, actually, is where I’d defend him. Not because the gloating is unjustified: Kinkade’s art is almost certainly worth very little on the secondary market now and will probably be literally worthless (in that it will have no buyers) 30 years from now. But hardly any art—including works by critically adored artists—is worth anything in the future. An artist whose work is in the permanent collection of The Art Institute of Chicago, for example, painted a big 1970s canvas hanging in my office.  But it’s still more-or-less worthless because there’s simply no market for big 1970s abstract canvases. Less than 1% of art ever created appreciates in value.

But it’s much more than this: hardly anything individuals buy on the basis of personal taste will ever go up in value. I’d doubt that a single purchased-new piece of furniture in my house, even one of the paintings I own; any item in my collection of art glass; or any article of clothing I’ve ever bought has appreciated significantly. Even when these things do go up in value (gold jewelry my wife has is almost certainly worth more than we paid for it prior to the gold price run-up) it’s mostly because of movements in commodity markets rather than anything about the jewelry itself.

As my former American Enterprise Institute colleague Kevin Hassett has pointed out, indeed, the only category of collectable to appreciate in value is comic books. And, as Hassett point out, even that may be a little misleading. Unlike antique furniture or art glass, the overwhelming majority of people who buy comic books do so to read and, often, discard them. The books are valuable precisely because they aren’t purchased entirely as collectables and thus, are often destroyed or rendered un-saleable.

So, yes, Kinkade’s work is likely to be worthless in the future. But so is almost everything else that anybody purchases on the basis of taste.


At the Huffington Post, I’ve outlined some proposals to strongly encourage people to acquire health insurance without actually putting a mandate per se into place, while still covering pre-existing conditions. My idea, frankly, isn’t a pure market mechanism: instead, it’s an extension of the idea of “creditable coverage” to the individual health insurance market market. Anyone who keeps health insurance in force with no significant breaks would be assured coverage for pre-existing conditions. Furthermore, by eliminating employer-provided health care tax breaks and restructuring other programs, health insurance could become a lot more accessible. Creditable coverage works moderately well in the group market already, so I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that it’s plausible in the individual market too. And it could help a lot of people.


Texas Insurance Commissioner Eleanor Kitzman and I met last week. I didn’t ask her if the conversation was on the record, so I don’t feel it would be right for me to divulge details. I don’t agree with everything she wants to do. But almost everything she said leads me to think that free-marketers are going to be very pleased with her plans for the state and the direction of its still-troubled insurance markets.

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