A painting by Jean Paul Riopelle, the Montreal-born artist who died in 2002, was sold in May for $7.4 million—an impressive sum but not enough to make the painting the most expensive in Canadian history. That honour went to a work by Lawren Harris that sold last November for $11.2 million. I recently saw a painting I rather liked at an exhibition put on by a local artists’ group. I might have bought it—had I not found $325 considerably more than I was willing to part with.
How much a thing is worth obviously has a lot to do with how much someone is willing to pay for it. If you can afford to spend the money, you might regard $7.4 million as a bargain-basement price for a Riopelle. When you get a call from the veterinarian telling you that your cat will be just fine—probably—provided she has an operation that will cost $1,099 (plus tax), your command of basic economics and even fundamental arithmetic goes right out the window.
When a pet is obviously ill, you take it to the vet. It will cost money, but it will be worth the expense. The household budget will stretch to an exam and a few pills. A blood test? Well, perhaps that, too (you think as your mental calculator tries to add up the so-far theoretical numbers—after all, you’re not about to demand an estimate before you nervously nod approval for every little thing, so the ultimate size of the hole in your wallet remains for a time a hastily cobbled together approximation). As the vet pokes, prods, and ponders, you begin to wonder, though, having just agreed to an X-ray. If this keeps up, you start to think…. And suddenly it hits you that at some point, the total could, in theory, mutate into a number that begins to look like the sort of sum you imagine people have paid for a painting you couldn’t possibly afford, a sum that—a more frightening and sobering thought—you would never be willing to pay. At some point, you may have to say, “Enough and no more. It’s been a noble effort, but I’m afraid I’ll have to draw a line here.” You will be rational, stuffing emotion and sentiment into the most distant corner of the room, and you begin to negotiate with yourself, trying to settle on a number that exceeds what Reason will allow you to pay for a cat that—let’s face it—you rescued from a shelter and could replace by going back to the same shelter. Heck, you could replace her by standing on a street corner and waiting about 20 minutes until a stray wandered by and gave you That Look. Besides, Reason reminds you, you’ve already run up a hefty bill. So, you and Reason agree, if the test says she needs a $1,000 operation, that’s the point at which you will reluctantly have to put your foot down.
And that decision gives you back some sense of control—until the vet phones you after the blood test and the X-rays and tells you that your cat needs the surgery. You say you’ll think hard and call back as soon as possible. Yes, $1,099 is too much. Would $900 be too much? How about $800? It’s not a matter of the budget, really: the bill won’t leave you homeless….
Perhaps in the end, how much something is worth has nothing to do with Reason. Perhaps that’s what they mean when they say that a thing is priceless.
Murray Lewis, Editor-in-Chief