A new study by researchers at the Yale School of Management explores why we value an original piece of artwork so much more than an exact duplicate.

While it is common knowledge that an original is worth far more than a perfect forgery, it remained unclear what psychological factors distinguish work from fake. To probe this question, the study investigated whether people understood artwork to be more like humans or generic tools, and found that it landed somewhere in the middle of the spectrum — people believe that artwork, like humans, cannot be recreated, because it then loses part of its creator’s essence. The findings have implications beyond the art world, extending to markets for luxury goods or celebrity memorabilia, said George Newman GRD ’08, study lead author and SOM professor.

“It’s [an effect] we see cross-culturally, and it’s shared across many different people from many different cultures of many different ages,” Newman said.

The research was an exploration of the idea of “identity continuity,” the study of what makes something the same over time. Newman and co-researchers at SOM and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business investigated how people perceive identity continuity in relation to artwork, and in particular whether a piece of artwork is considered to be as valuable if it is destroyed and then replicated.

In the first experiment, researchers presented 37 participants with a scenario in which a man created a mold, poured plastic into the mold, and later realized that the product was deteriorating and had to be recreated using the same mold. Some of the participants were then told that the original had been a piece of art; others were told that it had been a tool. When asked whether or not the resulting duplicate was the same as the original, participants who had been told the object was a tool were far more likely to agree than those who considered the original a work of art.

This finding suggests that humans understand artwork as fundamentally special, said Rosanna Smith GRD ’18, a study coauthor. The second experiment aimed to explain this phenomenon: What is it about artwork that makes it more irreplaceable than a hammer or a trash can?

“When you recreate that artwork, every molecule is still there, so what’s missing?” Smith said.

To address this question, the research team posed three potential explanations for the uniqueness of artwork: that the artist transferred a part of his or her essence to the piece, the idea of individual creativity, or the idea of sentimentality. The study used an online survey of 303 adults to evaluate which of these hypotheses the participants deemed most important.

The results showed that people significantly valued the essence of the creator over any factors of creativity or sentimentality, Smith said. This finding suggests a common belief in “magical contagion,” in which a piece of the artist’s essence has been transferred to the artwork and cannot be duplicated.

“The object comes to embody, in a pretty literal sense, a piece of the creator,” Newman said. “A piece of the person is literally rubbed off on the object.”

These findings may have implications for the business world, Smith said. The contagion effect seems to defy the economic idea of humans as rational actors, since certain objects are valued at such high rates that cannot be explained by their material value, he explained. The finding adds more nuance to our understanding of how buyers make decisions, she said.

The idea of placing value on the intangible quality of essence spans cultures and ages, Newman said, adding that anthropologists and sociologists have researched the topic for the last century. While an explanation for this belief is still under investigation, there does seem to be a “core cognitive faculty” at play, he said.

“Seeing how we value objects can help us understand how we see ourselves as well,” Smith said. “We seem to prize people’s souls and uniquenesses at a very high rate.”

The study was published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science on Aug. 27.

  • Brad Teare

    This might explain why artworks, even hyper realist pieces like trompe l’oeil, often have a defect or imperfection that marks it as a handmade object. I have often puzzled over these perceived defects especially when it was obvious that it was within the artist’s power to have removed them.