the quirks of the art market: part 1/3

art market analysis: a market with a life of its own

In the era of instant gratification, of technology, of globalisation unlike we’ve ever seen before, there is a curious creature that now places itself in our company — the art market.

For millennia, art has been created and sold, from jewellery to commissioned portraits of royalty. But an interesting 20th century phenomena has occurred — the mushrooming of the art market, and of the number of people involved in it. Consider here entire proliferation of profesions, such as curators, conservation specialists, storage and insurance people to name but a few. Consider also the relatively new phenomenon called the art critic and the power s(he) exerts.

The rise of the art market

Trying to trace exactly where the art market exploded feels like having the debate over which came first, the chicken or the egg. The art market was present, as was the art. Several factors contributed to the rise of this enigmatic sector of the economy, however, among them the rise of status symbols, of the nouveau riche, combined with the increased communications between countries and continents.

David Carrier, art historian and critic, notes that:

No other activity combines snobbery and scholarship as the art market

Artequals sexy investments

Perhaps it is highlighting why the art market is such a popular place to put your money. By investing however many zeroes, you can establish that you are classy and intelligent: two dearly desired traits in anyone who wants to be recognised.

Never underestimate how insecure buyers are about contemporary art, and how much they need reassurance

Howard Rutkowski

Art market analysis

Art is not a utilitarian investment. E.g. one does not sit on a Matisse print at the end of the day- but rather an investment, which happens to help define status, taste, and identity. It is an emotional investment, one that is considerably more defining than many other ventures. With ever-increasing globalisation, it also began to involve many more players. More players lead to more art at stake, more galleries and auction houses wanting to get in on this phenomenon.

the art auction brand effect

The two big players in all of this art market business have been the auction houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with the third largest auction house, Phillips, de Pury and Luxembourg, playing their part. Auction houses are often catalysts for purchases on the art market, because they provide security and anonymity – if you so choose. In addition, they offer their own brand.

Purchasing a Renoir through a private dealer is one thing, but saying that you picked it up at the annual Christie’s Impressionist auction in black tie is quite another- it adds value to your purchase, along with erasing many doubts about the piece you are purchasing. Another reason why auction houses are such popular avenues of purchasing is outlined by Don Thompson. If oyou want to obtain a piece of art by a popular artist, going through a dealer requires “connections, previous purchases and a long time spent on a waiting list”. In our technology-driven, instant-gratification world, this simply is not the way to serve many potential buyers.

What’s more, the ability to see and be seen at the auction houses is a great way to assert oneself as a serious player in the world of collecting art- if there are enough zeroes at the end of your bank statement, that is. The glamour and ease of attaining art, even if it’s at a steep price, is a balancing game of “cost versus worth”, but for ‘the moneyed set’ this is rarely a hard decision to make.

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Contribution by Kate van Genderen

Carrier, David, “On the Possibility of Aesthetic Atheism: Philosophy and the Market in Art”, MIT Press, Leonardo, 18, 1, 1985.
Melikian, Souren. “Rothko Leads a Record Contemporary Art Sale”, New York Times, 9 May 2012,
Ng, David, L.A. Times, “Alberto Giacometti Sculpture Breaks Record” Los Angeles Times, Feb 2010,
Thompson, Don, “The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Auction Houses”, Aurum Press Ltd, London, 2008.
Velthius, Olav, “Talking Prices: Symbolic Meaning of Prices on the Contemporary Art Market”, Princeton University Press, New Haven, 2005.