The Story of the $100 Million Urinal

The most valuable urinal the world has ever known was created in New York City in 1917.

It had no diamonds in it, nor any precious stones at all. It was not made of gold or platinum, but of porcelain, just like every other urinal. In fact, in every respect, it was just like every other urinal, into which the common men of the time were relieving themselves in the public bathrooms around the world.

In 1917, an artist calling himself R. Mutt signed his name to such a urinal—said to be a Bedfordshire model bought at a foundry showroom on Fifth Avenue—and submitted it to an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists, paying their $6 fee. Even though it was a nonjuried exhibit, open to anyone who paid the fee, the Society’s board took the extraordinary step of exercising jury powers. They turned down Mr. Mutt’s submission as not being art and returned the urinal to him with a rejection slip.A photograph of the urinal—the only remaining record of the original—appeared in an obscure art journal called The Blind Man, along with an editorial denouncing the board’s decision. “Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under a new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.”
Mr. Mutt, it turned out, was a young artist named Marcel Duchamp, associated with an emerging avant-garde art movement called Dada. “The Fountain,” as the work was titled, took on a life of its own. The original was lost, but over the years Duchamp authorized fifteen replicas, one of which is now held in the permanent collection of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, another in the Tate Modern in London.

In 2004, in a survey of five hundred British art experts, “The Fountain” was voted the most influential piece of modern artwork. Think about that for a moment. Modern art includes masterworks such as Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” and “Guernica,” Dalí’s “The Persistence of Memory,” the work of Kandinsky and Matisse, and on and on, and the most influential work is . . . a manufactured pisser with a signature on it?

“[W]ith this single ‘readymade’ work,” one commentator wrote, “Duchamp invented conceptual art and severed for ever the traditional link between the artist’s labour and the merit of the work.”

The authorized replicas of Duchamp’s original are now worth as much as $3.6 million each. Because it was lost, we’ll never know the financial value of the original. But given the $100+ million valuations that other influential works at the top of that survey have fetched at auction, if the original were around today, it would certainly be worth in the high tens of millions, if not over $100 million.

Before Duchamp got his hands on it, that urinal was worth whatever he paid for it at the store—probably a few hundred dollars at most, in today’s dollars. How did he turn a urinal he bought for a few hundred dollars on Fifth Avenue into something that would be worth possibly over $100 million?

A clue to the answer can be found in the case of later artist Piero Manzoni. It took about 44 years for Duchamp’s line of thinking to work all the way down the digestive track of modern art. In 1961, Manzoni tinned 90 cans with 30 grams each of his own excrement, labeling the cans “Artist’s Shit.” Manzoni originally sold the cans to the art market for around $37, or around $872 in today’s dollars.

Seems like a reasonable price to pay for a can of poo… I guess?

Well, the story doesn’t stop there. Over time, the art market decided, this whole thing wasn’t bullshit; rather, the market became bullish on shit.

The value of the cans skyrocketed. In 2007, one of these ninety cans sold at a Sotheby’s auction for around $160,000—implying a valuation of $14,400,000 for the entire, uh, “load” that Manzoni dropped.
Later, there came to be some question as to whether the tins might actually contain mere plaster—a friend of Manzoni’s claimed as much. No one was willing to take the $160,000 hit to ruin one of the pieces with a can opener, and find out for sure. However, the mere suspicion of plaster, rather than genuine artist’s dung as labeled, apparently made the value of the tins go down substantially.

How does an artist make his shit (or plaster presented fraudulently as his shit worth $160,000 a can?
Manzoni, it turns out, left a clue.

Before, I wrote that Manzoni originally sold the cans for “about $37.” However, in writing that, I left out a crucial detail.

Actually, he priced his 30-gram cans at a floating rate based the daily market value of the cans’ equivalent weight in gold. That market value was then about $37 (or around $872 in today’s dollars.) But remember, the cans weren’t priced in dollars (or other paper currency) per can; rather, they were priced based on the floating rate of gold.
Manzoni was, in other words, turning his grams of shit into grams of gold—or at least, he came as close to doing that as any human ever has or will.

The shit-into-gold aspect of the piece is an obvious reference to alchemy, the medieval philosophical system which included, among other esoteric practices, attempts to transmute low value substances, such as lead, into precious metals such as gold.

The alchemists failed at their direct attempts at that goal. But it seems that artists (or at least some artists, well-positioned within the rarified world of modern art) succeed at turning garbage into gold. They can turn urinals and dookie into pieces of fine art worth millions of dollars.

How do they do so?

These artists developed something I call “narrative wealth.”

For better or worse, Duchamp created a world in which visual artists were no longer being valued for the craft of making things. To whatever degree there had been a correlation between an artist’s skill at their craft, and the value of the artist’s work historically and financially, Duchamp (and the artistic trends he represented) flushed it down the toilet. Now, artists are being valued not for the craft of making things.

Rather, they are being valued for the craft of making stories about the things they make.

It’s not urinal: it’s a statement about the artist’s power to create art out of anything. Or perhaps, a statement about the arbitrary nature of art curation. Those are stories. Very valuable ones, it turns out.

It’s not shit: it’s *artist’s shit*, canned to “expose the gullibility of the art-buying public,” Manzoni later said. (The art buying public, it seems, are conceptual masochists–they will pay a pretty penny to be mocked.) That’s a story.

Narrative wealth is the ability to make things more valuable by weaving them into a story. It’s the story that creates value, not necessarily the things within it.

This trend—which is only getting stronger in our digital, dematerialized, media-saturated, virtual, crypto age—is both good news and bad news. It’s bad news, because it upends almost everything we know about “wealth,” which we usually think of as inherent to “things” that are solid and easy to predict, manage and measure.

This new way of thinking requires developing an entirely new operating system about wealth, a new way of thinking about value and how it’s created.

This is also good news, however, because those who begin looking at wealth in terms of stories, instead of quantities, have a huge leg up. You can weave great stories without having a lot of money, and these stories can have the alchemical power to transform everything around you into a higher value version of itself—higher value subjectively (experiences, emotions, happiness, meaning) and also objectively in terms of money and other quantifiable, tradeable wealth.

Because I find these trends so fascinating and important, I’ve decided to write a new short book entitled “The Richest Story for the Fewest Dollars: The Strategy of Narrative Wealth.”

The next chapter is available immediately for free if you subscribe to my “Narrative Wealth” mailing list.

In the next chapter, I move away from scatological objects such as urinals and poo-cans, and instead analyze how an 25-year-old unemployed guy turned one single piece of common office trash into over $100,000, in the space of a year, all with his powers of narrative wealth.

After that, we’ll go to the people who started an ironic crypto-currency as a joke, which now has a market capitalization of $242,000,000 – all because it was a good story.

Don’t miss the strategy of narrative wealth—join me as we develop this story together for YOU and your future!

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