Lessons from the Fountain

Fountain is an iconic piece of ‘art’ produced by Marcel Duchamp [1], a white porcelain urinal with the words “R. Mutt 1917” scrawled on the side.


While the original was lost (most likely thrown out after the exhibition) it has been the subject of controversy and discussion ever since. A small number of replicas were made during the 1950’s and In 1964 eight replicas were created by Duchamp. In 1999, one of these replicas sold at Sotheby’s for $1.7M. Others from this set of 8 replicas reside in the Centre Georges Pompidou and the Tate moder. In 2004 it was voted the most influential work of modern art of all time.

Although the artistic implications of this work have been done to death, to me there are several important lessons we mortals working in more mundane commercial spheres can learn from it.

  • Reputation is Everything. Few people could scrawl something on a urinal, enter it in an art show anonymously, and have it mean something. Duchamp’s reputation before and after ‘fountain’ ensured it would not be forgotten or ignored.
  • Everything is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.[2] That someone was prepared to pay $1.7M for a replica of ‘fountain’ seems incredible, and yet.. why not. Art, and other ‘intellectual property’, real property are all only of value because people are prepared to pay for them.

Next time you’re thinking about putting a price on a good or service you have for sale remember that, at some point in an auction house someone put in a bid of $1.7M for a replica of a urinal with some graffiti on it.

Image courtesy of Le Grand Portage

[1] Possibly not actually even created by Duchamp, but rather submitted on behalf of a female friend who had adopted the nom de guerre Richard Mutt.

[2] Often attributed to Roman slave Publilius Syrus after it was included in the 1856 ‘translation’ of his maxims by Darius Lyman, this may be a mis-attribution. But that doesn’t make it any less right.