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Can “AI” Predict the Upcoming Auction Price for a Rothko Painting?

“Untitled 1960” by Mark Rothko

The Auction Price

On May 16, 2019 Sotheby’s will conduct an auction of three works by Mark Rothko. The work above is one of them, “Untitled 1960.” The painting is to be auctioned at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale on May 16, 2019.

Sotheby’s is forecasting the painting will sell for between $40.1-$57.2 million.

The AI model used by Artsy predicts the work will sell for $42.3 million.

AI or Not AI?

It seems that the term “AI” has come to be used in a general, but confusing way. The purpose here is not a game of which estimate is correct. The purpose here is to raise the question of whether the model developed by Artsy is “AI” or not?


The term, “AI” has come to be used in a broad sense to include a formula, a computer program, and an algorithm. The term “algorithm” is perceived as ” a “thing” that solves problems on its own. In general, AI is perceived as being superior to the human mind.

However it is important to know that the term ‘algorithm”, in its most general sense, “is any set of detailed instructions which results in a predictable end-state from a known beginning. Algorithms are only as good as the instructions given, however, and the result will be incorrect if the algorithm is not properly defined.” wisegeek.com.

AI by Artsy

Artsy developed its AI by using factors that it considered necessary to determine the final auction price of the work. Thus Artsy determined that its AI was “based simply on the digital image plus five variables: painting height and width, whether it’s a work on paper or canvas, the number of billionaires in the world, and the wealth they control,” Artsy, (factors we may agree with or not).

Artsy coupled this data with a “pattern-recognition algorithm called a Convolutional Neural Network (Convolutional Neural Network (CNN). A CNN looks at pixels in digital images and finds patterns in them, without the machine first being told what to look for. ). A CNN looks at pixels in digital images and finds patterns in them, without the machine first being told what to look for.” Artsy.

Is This Really AI?

Artsy also compiled a “data base,” of “works by Rothko sold at auction since 2000, a total of 118 objects. The database includes not only all-in sale prices (hammer price plus buyer’s premium) and object descriptors (size, date painting was made, date it was sold, painting on canvas or paper, etc.) gathered from the artnet price database, but also digital images of each work that [Artsy] pulled from the web.”

To properly evaluate whether the model us by artsy is actually “AI,” or simply a calculation based on past sales, requires an expert in AI.

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