When Shit Got Pricier Than Gold: Manzoni’s Excremental Alchemy

The canvas of painting history painted a lustrous picture of the wonders of the brush.

Art connoisseurs, real and otherwise, regularly paid obeisance and sang paeans to vivid masterpieces. Rising wealth in recent decades meant that many of these wonders came to be viewed as an investment class. Picasso and Rembrandt now adorned the walls of wealthy patrons; who almost unanimously, liked to think of themselves as connoisseurs.

To the art cynic, however, artists and painters seemed masters at profound conceptual mumbo-jumbo. A few lines here, a few there, random gobs of colour strewn carelessly, with great care, on canvas often resulted in a masterpiece that fetched a fortune. The naysayer was brushed off, ironically, by the artist, on the grounds of utter ignorance at appreciating beauty. The cynics, however, made some of the artists pause and ponder about the state of affairs.

Veiled irreverence had always been a potent tool in a provocateur’s arsenal. A snide remark on his apparent ineptness as a painter from one of his own set off reactive impulses in Italian brushman Piero Manzoni; who rather inadvertently through his actions taught the world an entertaining lesson on the values of popular delusion.

Stung by criticism, Manzoni decided to carry out a real-time experiment. In 1961, he put art connoisseurs to the test by filling 90 tin cans filled with an ounce each; of his valuable excrement and christened his ‘artwork’, Artist’s Shit. The action, rather harmless in intention, turned into a vivid parody of art in subsequent years.

Manzoni intended each can to be priced equal to the prevailing price of Gold by weight. The price of each can would vary according to the fluctuating price of Gold. In 1961, this valued Manzoni’s finely preserved faeces at $37 each, a princely amount for a thing of shitty value.

Shit was worth as much as Gold.

Given his stature among art appreciators, Manzoni’s cans gained in allure with the passage of time. A piece of art was, of course, theoretically priceless, in the eyes of art lovers. Several regime changing events occured in the 1970s, which resulted in Gold’s value fluctuating with gay abandon since. Manzoni’s cans came into their own.

30 years after the cans came into being, art auctioneer Sotheby’s auctioned one can for a rather eye-popping $67,000. The price of Gold meanwhile, poor commodity, had soared to only $375/ounce. Manzoni’s faeces changed hands at 170 times their ‘fair’ price. Rational humans were in the act.

Shit had got pricier than Gold.

But, rationalisation has always been a ready elixir to our actions. Of course, Manzoni’s faeces were in short supply (he died an untimely death). More of it could simply not be created, unless someone volunteered to sit in.

A thing of scarcity value only becomes more (in)valuable with time. Then in 2007, Sotheby auctioned one can…for a monumental $163,000. Gold, meanwhile, after a stellar rally, had only managed to reach $650/ounce. In keeping with the spirit of the recession, another can changed hands for $157,000 in October 2008, at the onset of the financial crisis. Gold managed to inch up to $780/ounce.

After fetching 250 times the price of Gold in 2007, humans demonstrated their natural rationality by remembering the recession and Manzoni’s excrement fell out of favour, somewhat.

Shit was priced at only 200 times the price of Gold. 


Manzoni's Shit

Some felt that Manzoni’s parody on rationality and consumerism had left a bad odour, not-so-ironically, on human beings. Yet others felt that humans had displayed acute understanding of scarcity value.

We humans had learnt our lesson.

Or had we?


“It’s Psychology, Stupid!”

Psychology has a queer property. It assumes easy malleability in times of tragedy. Fear is probably among the easiest emotions to trigger in human beings. A tragedy serves as a stimulus, setting off ripple reactions in various directions. A typical pattern follows. The initial outbreak is generally met with expert voices and government officials confident of averting a major crisis. Then as the monster begins devouring prey in increasing numbers, stoic denial gives way to frenzied disaster management. The public, meanwhile, find their own ways of combating the tragedy…

The following instances draw attention to the primary and secondary effects of a tragedy/crisis. The nomenclature is used loosely, as the choice of ‘primary’, ‘secondary’ is largely a matter of definition. Additionally, the post puts the spotlight on price action in certain goods in the after-math of a crisis. These events serve to highlight the philosophical-sounding rationality-irrationality paradigm. What is rationality?

Japan, 2011

Even as media glare and the globe’s attention is focused on the Fukushima site nuclear radiation problem, a quiet frenzy is underway in an unlikely outlet – Iodine pills.

Primary effect: Before the tragedy, the world at large had hardly heard of these two words. But Fukushima has served as a catalyst for a marvellous rally in the price of iodine pills. A 10-tablet pack that hitherto cost $10 now is bid up to $550 (and counting); a 55-fold gain in a matter of days for a pill whose utility nobody is sure about. Interestingly, demand for these pills has emerged in geographies not even remotely close to Japan.

Secondary effects are often more interesting. The limited supply of iodine pills has triggered a scramble for iodine solution that is used to treat cuts. Reports purportedly circulated in China, Hong Kong and Philippines, exhorting people to paint their neck and private parts with iodine solution. Apparently, this helps guard reproductive essentials from the penetrating gaze of nuclear radiation. Amen.

There’s a hierarchy of uncertainties at play. No one is sure if iodine is the life-saving elixir. No one is sure about death caused by the radiation. But somehow the former seems less uncertain than the latter. Would you rather pay $500 to give yourself an apparent chance of survival or do nothing and wait for who-knows-what?

Tragedy numbs the brain and as survival instincts take over, people clamour for the first exit that has some chance of keeping them alive. Never mind the rationality. Perhaps it is irrational to do nothing under the circumstances.

Swine Flu, 2009

As the pandemic spread its tentacles to other parts of the globe, tragedy stoked fear, again.

Primary effect: Tamiflu became the buzzword. The world focused on it, as the elixir that would annihilate the wretched swine flu virus. When procurement became difficult, public attention turned to something ubiquitous – the good old face mask.

Face mask sales spiked and prices followed as demand far outstripped supply. Malaysia saw a 10-fold rise and many other geographies saw prices spike 4-to-8-fold. This, despite expert voices pontificating about the uselessness of masks in keeping swine flu at bay. Experts, who?

Secondary effect: I recollect a news-piece from Russia that fed off the face mask mania. The region of Khabarovsk apparently imposed a ‘mask regime’. Anyone not wearing a mask was liable to a fine. The cost of a mask (post-levitation) was less than $1. The fine, in contrast, was ~$20! Additionally, your lax supervisor had to shell out over $100 for not monitoring you effectively. 50% of the local companies made decent collections as a result of the above scheme. Swine flu had meandered through various linkages and had helped companies conjure up novel ways of adding some top-line, the temporary nature notwithstanding. Someone, somewhere always emerges richer from a crisis.

Face masks gave people a sense of security. I confess to foolhardily refusing to wear a mask through the scare. My reasoning was, if everyone else was wearing it, I had little to fear by way of man-to-man transmission, although it still left me exposed to virulent airwaves. My bravado was probably misplaced but here I am, alive and writing…

SARS, 2003

N95 became the in-thing. Especially, once WHO put its heavy stamp of authority on the mask’s usage. Prices rose 5-fold and smuggling was rampant…

Ok, I’ll give in to temptation. I’ll round out with one example from the financial world.

Japan, 2011, triggered a rush-to-safety in the investments world. Equities and risky assets took a knock as market participants piled in to perceived risk-free havens. The Japanese Yen was a prime beneficiary. Concurrently, equity volatility (a measure of investor fear) spiked.

Fear is an interesting emotion. Human psychology manifests in fascinating ways in both the social and financial spheres. In each of the above episode, a catalyst exacerbated the effects of a stimulus, playing on the emotion of fear. This, almost always, triggers bubbly price rises in certain goods that appear to defy reason. Human being’s behaviour seems out-of-whack, but is it really so?

It’s all in the mind.