BBC One television’s “Fake or Fortune” programme featured works alleged to be by French painter Paul Gauguin: one was deemed to be a fake,and worth a few hundred pounds, the other was deemed genuine and worth a fortune, or a few hundred thousand pounds, anyway.
What gives something real value? A question that used to be a good discussion-starter in school classrooms was, “If your house was burning down and you could save only one thing, what would it be?” The most reflective answer came from a twelve year old girl, “I would want to save our family photo album”. In cash terms, the photo album would be of little worth, it’s value being only sentimental, but isn’t the notion of value itself only sentimental? What is there in this world that has any value other than that given to it by our sentimentality?
Put yourself in the middle of a desert or trapped in a remote mountain range. What’s valuable there? Food and the equipment needed to survive. Everything else is of no use. What would you do with gold bullion or precious stones or priceless art in mid-Sahara or the high Andes? Would it feed you for one more day? Would it protect you from elements that have the potential to kill you? What use would you be, arriving at a refugee camp, with a truckload of antiques or paintings? Would any of them save the life of a child dying from diarrhoea?
The essentials of life are the only things in this world that are of intrinsic worth, everything else has only sentimental value, the value attached to it by human thoughts and desires. Investment in gold bullion is the most bizarre piece of sentimentality, gold has no intrinsic worth and no utility. Its status as something in which people invest in uncertain times is not borne out by history – it pays no dividends and it lost 25% of its value between 2012 and 2016, but sentimentality has a powerful hold. Artworks may sell for fortunes, they may sell for tens of millions at auction, but their value is that attributed to them by human inclination. What is the difference between a work by Gauguin and one by a member of a local art evening class? The difference arises from the opinion of people regarding the value of the work; it’s a matter of human sentiment. The fake or fortune question is about the sentimentality of those asking the question.