This page considers the retail end of the art market -
dealers and auction houses - and other collectibles markets.
It covers -
As the preceding page noted, intermediaries between the
creator (or discoverer) and the collector are fundamental
to the overall circulation of cultural commodities.
They are of interest because some have been instrumental
in support and recognition of creators, for example by
providing stipends for emerging artists and promoting
their works through scholarly catalogues.
They are also of interest as businesses, enterprises in
which the beauty of the objects that they handle and the
plushness of rhetoric about dealing in the results of
genius are offset by practice that is exploitative or
even distinctly illegal.
It is common for people to conceptualise the 'art market'
as consisting of - or merely dominated by - a handful
of auction houses and major dealerships. That conceptualisation
has been fostered by those entities, both to enhance their
strategic position vis a vis competitors and as a foundation
for advocacy in resisting initiatives such as Droit
It is clear however that the 'art business' encompasses
a wide range of businesses engaged in first sale and resale
of works and a diverse ecosystem of service providers
- some of considerable scale, others very small, some
restricting their operation to the art market, others
(such as insurers) operating in numerous markets.
It is important to remember that, however gorgeous the
commodities, most enterprises in the art market are indeed
businesses. Underneath the glitter many are similar to
used car dealers. They operate on a commercial basis and
may indeed achieve returns on investment that are significantly
greater than peers in less glamorous markets. They are
not immune to considerations of cash flow, risk, marketing
and diversification. The dominant auction houses for example
make a substantial portion of their revenue as financiers
rather than merely as providers of a platform on which
a seller and purchaser can shake hands.
For more recent times see the lucid From Monet To
Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market (New
York: Random House 1992) by Peter Watson and True
Colors: The Real Life of the Art World (New York:
Atlantic Monthly Press 1998) by Anthony Haden-Guest.
Francis Haskell's Patrons and Painters: Art and Society
in Baroque Italy (New Haven: Yale University Press
1980), Richard Goldthwaite's Wealth and the Demand
for Art in Italy, 1300-1600 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins
Uni Press 1993) and Lisa Jardine's Worldly Goods:
A New History of the Renaissance (London: 1996)
There is a broader view in Muses and Markets: Explorations
in the Economics of the Arts (Oxford: Blackwell 1989)
by Bruno Frey & Werner Pommerehne, Gerald Reitlinger's
pioneering three volume The Economics of Taste
(London: Barrie & Rockcliff 1961, 1963, 1971), Creative
Industries: Contracts Between Art & Commerce
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 2000) by Richard Caves and
Moving Rooms: The Trade in Architectural Salvages
(New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2007) by John Harris.
galleries and other dealers
What of the middlemen in the chain from the creator to
the consumer and thence to a curatorial institution or
The Economist commented in 2007 that
are the saints of the art world—supporting struggling
artists, shining a light on unacknowledged genius, exemplifying
the highest standards of scholarship and connoisseurship;
and also the sinners, accused of every possible skulduggery
in pursuit of a higher price for their artists and a
higher profit for themselves.
Much art (and other commodities such as books, coins and
carpets) has traditionally been sold by dealers, usually
operating from a discrete venue. Some dealers have bought
direct from artists; others have acquired works from earlier
buyers or finders (including consumers, other dealers,
excavators and even curatorial institutions). They have
purchased work outright or sold on consignment, with the
dealer's cut of the sale price usually being in the range
of 30 to 50%. Some possess considerable expertise and
build value through discerning catalogues or mere endorsement;
others have the skills and ethics of a dodgy used-car
salesperson despite assertions that art dealing is an
occupation for gentlemen and girls with blue blood.
Some dealers have gained fame for supporting artists through
thick and thin, indeed treating them as a member of the
family. Others have clearly exploited and even cheated
their artists, brazenly disregarded laws about the export
of antiquities, knowingly handled stolen or expropriated
property, and misled potential buyers.
A handful of the several thousand commercial galleries
in Australia and New Zealand account for most of the turnover,
unsurprising when the price of a Brett Whiteley oil can
be greater than the aggregate annual turnover of all galleries
in the Riverina.
For an overview of the US see Landscape with Figures:
A History of Art Dealing in the United States (New
York: Oxford Uni Press 2000) by Malcolm Goldstein.
Accounts of exemplary dealers feature in works on Vollard,
Kahnweiler, Cassirer, Matisse and Gimpel. Misbehaviour
in the handling of antiquities is highlighted in works
such as The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey
of Looted Antiquities - From Italy's Tomb Raiders to the
World's Greatest Museums (New York: PublicAffairs
2006) by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini and here.
Egregious offences by the Marlborough Gallery are profiled
in The Legacy of Mark Rothko (New York: Da Capo
1996) by Lee Seldes. There are more gentle or self-serving
accounts in The Art Dealers: The Powers Behind the
Scene Tell How the Art World Really Works (New York:
Potter 1984) by Laura de Coppet & Alan Jones.
For entertainment see Julien Levy's Memoir of an Art
Gallery (New York: Putnam 1977), Richard Feigen's
Tales from the Art Crypt (New York: Random 2000),
Marius de Zayas' How, When and Why Modern Art Came
to New York (Cambridge: MIT Press 1998) and John
Myers' Tracking the Marvelous A Life in the New York
Art World (New York: Random 1983). Classics include
Rene Gimpel's Diary of an Art Dealer (New York:
Straus & Giroux 1966) and Ambroise Vollard's Recollections
of a Picture Dealer (London: Constable 1968).
Academic and popular biographies include Pierre Matisse
and His Artists (Vancouver: Uni of British Columbia
Press 2003) by William Griswold, Pierre Assouline's An
Artful Life: A Biography of D H Kahnweiler, 1884-1979
(New York: Grove 1990), Lee Hall's Betty Parsons:
Artist, Dealer, Collector (New York: Abrams 1991),
Lindsay Pollock's The Girl with the Gallery: Edith
Gregor Halpert and the Making of the Modern Art Market
(New York: PublicAffairs 2006)
For Australia see works such as Degenerates and Perverts:
the 1939 Herald Exhibition of French and British Contemporary
Art (Carlton: Miegunyah 2005) by Eileen Chanin &
Steven Miller, Rebels & Precursors: The Revolutionary
Years of Australian Art (Melbourne: Allen Lane 1981)
by Richard Haese, The Early Sydney Moderns: John Young
and the Macquarie Galleries, 1916-1946 (Sydney: Craftsman
House 1988) by Jean Campbell, Rex Nan Kivell features
in the ADB
and an NLA exhibition.
Despite efforts to legitimate activities with a veneer
of faded gentility and disinterested connoisseurship the
contemporary fine arts auction houses - which have expanded
into dealing in other collectibles and services such as
upmarket real estate brokerage - are essentially creatures
of the 1960s and 1970s.
Prior to that time most upmarket works were sold by dealers
(for example Knoedler and Duveen in the fine arts). Much
of what was sold by auction houses went to dealers who
sold the items to individual or institutional buyers.
For Sotheby's and Christie's see in particular Peter Watson's
Sotheby's: The Inside Story (New York: Random
House 1997), Sothebys: Bidding for Class (London:
Little Brown 1998) by Robert Lacey, Inside Christie's
(London: Hodder & Stoughton 1990) by John Herbert
and The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christies
Auction House Scandal (New York: Putnam 2004) by
Eric Gibson sniffed that
tend to be insecure about their line of work, a fact
illustrated by an old saw about the difference between
Sotheby's and Christie's: One consists of auctioneers
trying to be gentlemen; the other of gentlemen trying
to be auctioneers.
So, for example, auctioneers dress up in black tie to
conduct the big-ticket auctions--to make sure you don't
confuse them with other folks around the country who
knock down hogs and repossessed cars for a living and
to gloss over the fact that they'll, well, sell anything.
(Remember Andy Warhol's cookie jars?) Keep a few former
museum directors on the premises and not only do you
get their expertise but you can hold your head up a
Do the 'gentlemen' need regulation? Sotheby's executive
David Nash grizzled that its critics have "a hostile
proletarian attitude toward our business".
Robert Hughes more perceptively noted that
art market in general, including the auction business,
is not a profession. It is a trade, a worldwide industry
whose gross turnover may be as high as $50 billion a
year. Like other trades, it contains a large moral spectrum
between dedicated, wholly honest people and flat-out
crooks. It has never earned the right to be considered
either self-policing or self-correcting.
It needs regulation, but consumer affairs -- overburdened
with the million complaints about small and large business
violations that arise in New York, which it was created
to deal with -- may not be equal to this task.
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