I've got a moral dilemma for you, compliments of a reader called Paris. (This also harkens back to my March post "On Scarcity and Rarity," when I was pretty much smacked down by a bunch of readers in the know.)
The situation: You're an art photographer. You love the work, but have struggled to make a living. For much of your life you've gone more or less hand to mouth, living in modest apartments, driving old econocars or taking the bus, never quite covered on the health insurance front, etc. Recently your star has risen and you've come into some modest prosperity and things are easier for you, although you're still several neighborhoods away from easy street, considering you live in New York City, not the cheapest place to live.
The trouble is that you did what has become far and away your best-known body of work in the middle of your twenties; you're now 57. There were a lot of pictures in that set, but at the time you limited each one to an edition of ten. Why ten? It was a number you decided arbitrarily one boozy summer night in the kitchen when you were 25, when your gallerist said you had to set a limit or she wouldn't show the work. You kept one of each for yourself.
As the years went by, the value of these early pictures has done nothing but go up. Your newer work does okay too, just not nearly as well as the early work you're famous for. You're not starving. But it's getting pretty frustrating watching other peoples' prints of your early work sell for dazzling sums on the resale market. Finally, a few years ago, you got an offer you couldn't refuse: an august arts institution offered one million dollars for your entire set of personal prints of that early work. You accepted. Invested, after taxes, that million is now earning an annuity of about $15,000 a year in perpetuity, a nice augmentation of your income.
You now own no prints of any of the pictures in the set of work you're famous for, and you're constrained against making any more by the original edition limit.
Then, one bright day, something amazing happens. A print of just one of your early pictures—your copy of which you sold to the museum just a few years ago as part of the million-dollar deal that seemed so good at the time—sets the all-time auction record for a photograph. Let's pick a random number out of a hat and say it sold for, oh, I don't know, $3,890,500. You didn't own the print, though, so you don't see a penny of that.
Then, a few weeks later, the losing bidder contacts you—and offers to pay you $3 million for a print of that same picture. Yes, he understands the edition was limited to 10 and that it's sold out. He swears up and down that the sale will be totally secret and the picture will be for his private enjoyment only. It will never be exhibited; no one will ever know it exists. You have a darkroom in the pantry, where you do your current work. You have the negative in a binder in the closet. All you have to do is make the print, sign it, and write "A/P" (artist's proof) on it, and that's it. Three and a half million dollars. Invested, another $50,000 a year for you.
The dilemma: would you do it?
(Thanks to Paris)
P.S. This moral dilemma is fictional. Any resemblance to actual individuals living or dead is coincidental and the actions of imaginary actors in the scenario have been invented out of thin air. We're just saying "what if." We are alleging nothing. We are implying nothing. We know nothing. Geddit? Goddit? Good.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.