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This Artwork Sells Itself Online

Mar 7, 2010 – 11:43 AM
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Theunis Bates

Theunis Bates Contributor

(March 7) -- If you paid $6,800 for a work of art, you'd expect to own it for more than a few days. But make a bid on American artist Caleb Larsen's latest creation, and you might have to give it up after just one week, whether you want to or not.

Larsen's "A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter" -- an 8-inch, black acrylic cube containing a mini-computer and a Web connection -- has been programmed to sell itself on eBay every seven days. All buyers and sellers have to sign an 18-point contract that declares that the artistic gizmo can only be disconnected from the Net when it's being transited between owners. As soon as a new collector takes possession, he's obliged to plug it back into the Web, restarting the selling process.

Caleb Larsen's artwork sells itself on eBay
Courtesy Caleb Larsen
This small black cube created by artist Caleb Larson is programmed to list itself for sale on eBay every seven days.
And if an auction ends without a sale, the work simply throws itself back on eBay. "The owner might keep hold of it for years if there are no buyers," admits Larsen. That hasn't been a problem so far. When the sculpture went on sale in late January an online bidding war broke out, pushing the work from an opening price of $2,500 up to a final fee of $6,500.

Larsen started to develop his eternal auction concept in early 2008, while helping a friend list moped parts on eBay. "We joked that it would be nice to come up with something that sold itself," he says. Then several months later, the same day that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Larsen watched a collection of works by British artist Damien Hirst (famous for dunking a dead shark in formaldehyde) sell at a London auction for a record-breaking $200 million. The art market was soaring at the very moment the stock market went into free-fall.

"Here I was, an artist with a fair amount of debt, and I was watching the economic climate shift," says Larsen, now 30 and based in Tulum, Mexico. "So I began to think of the way the art market functions and eventually got the idea of a sculpture that perpetually tries to sell itself."

He knew his piece probably wouldn't earn him Hirst-esque stacks of cash. But he wrote a smart clause into the eBay contract: The seller is committed to give Larsen 15 percent of any appreciation in value when the item is sold. That could help make the future of this struggling artist, well, a little less of a struggle.

"The artist normally only sees a portion of the first sale," he says. "So if you sell something for a few thousand dollars, 30 years later it could be worth hundreds of thousands. This contract keeps me invested in the work."

The legal document contains other important clauses. If the owner disconnects the sculpture from the Net for a long period, or interferes with the auction, then "the status of the work as an artwork" will be void. Larsen accepts that a collector could still view his deactivated box as a piece of art, but without the online auction element, he says it's "almost like a painting that's been torn in half. And who'd want half a picture?"

Although owners are allowed to set the starting price of new auctions -- the item is currently listed at $6,858 -- they're barred from putting the sale tag way above market value, scaring off potential buyers. Larsen inserted that term because he doesn't want this work to be just another piece of art in a collector's private hoard, or stashed away until it can make the owner a healthy profit. "The fact that it perpetually sells itself undermines its ability to become a collectible object," he explains.

And it was the impossibility of ever truly owning this sculpture that hooked its first buyer. "I had a really strong reaction right after I won the auction. I have this thing, and I really want to keep it, but the reason I want to keep it is that it might leave," Terence Spies, a California collector and Web security expert, told alternative Seattle newspaper The Stranger. "The process of the piece really gets to some of the reasons why you might be collecting art in the first place."
Filed under: World, Weird News, Tech
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