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Ai Weiwei Urn Broken at PAMM Was Actually Worth Way Less Than $1 Million

Ai Weiwei Urn Broken at PAMM Was Actually Worth Way Less Than $1 Million
Michael E. Miller

This week's feature story focuses on Máximo Caminero, the local artist who made international headlines last month by destroying a precious urn painted by Ai Weiwei. At the time, much of the media attention centered on the urn's million-dollar price tag.

But Caminero says cops were guessing, and both PAMM and Ai Weiwei also admit the amount is way off.

So what was the urn really worth?

See also: Maximo Caminero's Million-Dollar Attack on the Miami Art World

Caminero, a Dominican painter with hazel eyes and a habit of nearly dying, told New Times that neither cops nor museum officials seemed to have any clue how much the shattered urn was worth.

From our feature:

It was only when police officers slapped handcuffs on his wrists and sat him inside a squad car that Caminero began to have second thoughts. Those thoughts darkened when cops began blindly asking museum officials how much the urn was worth -- a guesstimate that could affect the charges against Caminero.

"Fifty thousand?" one officer asked. Caminero gulped. He thought the urn had been a replica from Home Depot, not a Han Dynasty original.

"More," said a museum official.

"A hundred thousand?" the cop tried again.

"No. More," the official answered. Caminero could feel his future being crushed under the absurd auction.

"Five hundred thousand," the official finally estimated. The cop rounded up to an even million, just to be safe.

PAMM officials declined to speak to New Times for the article, but deputy director Leann Standish told the New Yorker that the $1 million figure was way off.

"Standish said that the police needed to assign the vase a dollar value in order to arrest Caminero, since that figure would determine the charges against him," the magazine's Ben Mauk reported.

 

A series of nine such Ai Weiwei "colored vases" sold for roughly $150,000 in 2012. That would put the price of one urn around $17,000.

But as Standish pointed out, such works are usually sold (and insured) as a whole. Plus, the urns were part of a much larger show. Was the entire piece (all 16 urns) damaged by Caminero's protest? Was the entire exhibition?

Local art scholar Babacar M'Bow says the $1 million price tag was not only wrong but also deeply revealing.

"The most unsubstantiated aspect of the whole event, which is the $1 million, became the buzzword," he says. "I'm afraid that we are not looking at art in the city as something substantial. Hopefully, Miami will be able to learn from this and move forward and won't get stuck on the day-to-day discussion of whether it was good or bad or how much it was worth."

Máximo Caminero in his studio.
Máximo Caminero in his studio.
Michael E. Miller

Standish told the New Yorker much the same. "It has allowed for a dialogue to get started about what makes art valuable, and that is a good thing."

That debate, of course, is as old as art. But it's bitterly ironic that the mythical million-dollar price tag was slapped on the art of Ai Weiwei, whose Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn already raises uneasy questions about the value of art and antiquities in the face of progress, protest, and free speech.

"What Ai Weiwei does is he raises the question: 'Is it destruction to do this? Is it desecration to do this? Is it even really a Han Dynasty vase?'" says Peggy Wong, professor of art history and Asian studies at Bowdoin College. "It seems like [Caminero] didn't really understand what the work is about."

Caminero may never fully understand what Ai Weiwei's art is about, but he -- more than anyone -- will soon know exactly how much the urn cost.

His lawyers entered a plea of not guilty Monday, but if he strikes a deal to avoid prison time -- he faces up to five years -- Caminero would likely have to pay restitution.

Just not $1 million.

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