Gifts from Peter Norton: Christian Marclay's music box. Photo Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times.
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Resale Market [excerpts]
By CAROL KINO
Published: December 18, 2005
COME Christmas, it isn't only children who worry whether Santa will deem them naughty or nice. Grown-ups have their own barometers - and for many in the art world, the most important is the Peter Norton Christmas Project, a gift from the collector and software entrepreneur that arrives in a few thousand select homes each December.
Each year since 1988, rather than sending out a holiday card, Mr. Norton has commissioned an artist to create an edition - usually the sculptural objects or books known as "multiples." These are produced in quantities from 2,500 to 5,000 unnumbered copies, according to Kris Kuramitsu, the curator of the Peter Norton and Eileen Harris Norton Collections, who oversees the project. Once finished, the pieces are packed by a fulfillment house near the Norton-family office in Santa Monica, Calif., and shipped out around the world a few weeks before Christmas.
Though such large runs might imply that the gifts are only glorified trinkets, they are anything but; most are made by a celebrated artist who is already represented in Mr. Norton's own collection.
The general idea, Ms. Kuramitsu said, is "to make contemporary art accessible and understandable, through an actual object that people can live with." Most are designed to be played with, including this year's gift: a hand-assembled music box by the sound artist Christian Marclay, which reached most destinations last week.
A simple pine box branded with the word "SILENT," it opens to reveal the anagram "LISTEN," and a music box mechanism. When wound by a key, it plinks out a 22-note melody, which Mr. Marclay composed himself - instead of appropriated - to heighten the sense of surprise. A week before his piece was shipped, he marveled at the idea of "all these people opening their boxes all around the world."
To enhance each year's unveiling, everyone involved - from the artist to the shipping employees - is sworn to secrecy. "Something really important for the artist and for Peter," Ms. Kuramitsu said, "is that there's this wonderful element of suspense and surprise when you open the box."
But the real suspense is whom Mr. Norton deems nice enough to make the list. They include artists, particularly those in the Norton collection, as well as museum directors and curators. Also on the list are Norton family friends, who are "not necessarily art aficionados," Ms. Kuramitsu said.
So how is someone added or dropped? Ms. Kuramitsu claims not to know. The list, she said, is drawn up by Mr. Norton, who is said to delight in printing out every label himself. "It's a personal gift from Peter," she explained. "That's the logic behind it."
That the projects can't simply be bought enhances their desirability, and like all things desirable in the art world, they have developed a market. Norton multiples frequently turn up on eBay and the used-books Web site abebooks.com, which currently lists several, at prices ranging from two figures to the low four figures. A colorful plastic toy designed in 2000 by Takashi Murakami even has an auction record: $7,526 at Sotheby's London in May 2004.
Selling a Norton multiple - if Mr. Norton learns of it - is said to be a sure-fire way to get kicked off this Santa's list. But, as Mr. Leiber put it: "What are you going to do? They're gifts. People re-gift all the time." [read full article]