The Art Market

A 1986 sculpture by Jeff Koons just sold for $91.1 million. Why is art so expensive? “The short answer,” Gaby Del Valle writes, “is that most art isn’t.”

The high-end art market is “driven by a small group of wealthy collectors who pay astronomical prices for works made by an even smaller group of artists, who are in turn represented by a small number of high-profile galleries.” A few newcomers break through, but first they’ve got to find a gallery to represent their work. Gallerists shop for promising new talent at MFA programs.

As Roberto Ferdman observes, “only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future.” Galleries sell mostly to the ultra-rich, for whom spending a few million on a painting signals their good taste in luxury goods while also providing them with a potentially lucrative investment if the market goes up for the artist whose work they’ve acquired.



3 thoughts on “The Art Market

  1. Thanks for this, it’s got good information for people who aren’t involved in seeing a lot of it, but Ms. Del Valle’s article is dreadfully written, including that stupid-ass wind-up ” but the ability to look at beautiful things shouldn’t be limited to those who can afford to buy them” What editor let something that idiotic get by? Absurdly priced art considered chic or an investment has never had the slightest effect on ‘limiting the ability to look at beautiful things to those who can afford to buy them’. Nevermind the Koons is not beautiful. As my troll once agreed with me about Francine Prose, who seems to have thankfully disappeared from NYReview of Books, she is ‘desperately bad’, and includes nonsense about ‘white’ and ‘female’, that’s so she shows she ‘keeps in touch’.

    Her blockbuster ‘the short answer. Most art is not’. Most art is still expensive that I see in galleries, and although some artists range from the 4 figures to the 6 figures, the 5 figures cannot be called ‘inexpensive’, nor even the four for a piece of ceramic. They are luxury objects. I saw one of Yayoi kasuma’s things at the gallery where there was the beautiful French gallery manager, who told me that she does have works in museums–I find her work extremely ugly, but the one she had was $250,000, in a smallish gallery now showing ceramics as low as $7500. It was a simple ceramic bowl, but that doesn’t make it cheap.

    She hasn’t any point at all, although she does quote Christie’s as saying they are always selling thingts for a few hundred dollars or a few thousand. Of course, we don’t hear about those. And some of the art fair information was useful, but that’s for buyers, not viewers. Fairs of any kind are gigantic exhausting, and ugly.

    Over the years, even in the smaller Chelsea galleries, I’ve seen paintings for over $350000 by artists I thought were very good but are anything but household words. Of course billionaires, Google and Facebook and Microsoft are changing the world to be much smaller than 1%, more like .0001 % for certain luxury items like art objects and private customized planes, but not that much has changed. When you hear about gallery closings, they usually still can go to a less expensive area, and the Chelsea scene is little more than 25 years old, the Lower East Side galleries are much more recent, and they could find much lower rents there. I have read elsewhere that ‘small galleries are closing’, and that Chelsea is ‘wilting under the shadow of Hudson Yards’, but I see no sign of that at all. The Madison Avenue scene still has lots of small galleries, although some have had to move to the lower-rent areas.

    Still, even with the fairs, most art is expensive, just not ‘billionaire expensive’.

    I swear, they’ll let anybody write these days about such things. It is such a degradation. WaPo has some atrocious op-ed writers, you begin to realize that surely some had to have slept with someone–without harassment or abuse.


  2. I’ve been admiring your recent flâneries through the galleries, Patrick. The article is workmanlike reportage that didn’t require any expertise and probably didn’t take much work for her to assemble, with a lot of long quotes from other articles doing quite a bit of the work. In support for her contention that most art is not expensive, Del Valle references the cheap stuff from emerging artists — pieces that are still selling for 5 figures, which as you observe nobody but the rich can afford. She should have written about all of the other artists whose stuff gets displayed in regional galleries and fairs, or which never gets seen by anyone. So there’s the counterpoint to her punchline: most people don’t get to see even inexpensive art because it’s not on display anywhere — neither in galleries nor in museums nor in people’s houses.

    I’m particularly interested in the question of why some pieces sell for such high prices. Are they the best art? No. What then? Del Valle merely gestures with a tautology: “In other words, the reason some artists’ work sells for millions of dollars is because there’s a consensus in the art world that those works should sell for millions of dollars.” “Why is some art so expensive?” she asks in her title, and this is all she’s got for an answer. How is that consensus built? What are those “quality signals” that Velthius talks about? More investigation, even speculation; less hand-waving and glib pronouncements.


  3. Thank you, John, I’m glad you’re enjoying them=-it’s probably infectious because I seem to have just fallen into it (before, I’d go two or three times a year, and only to Chelsea, otherwise the Met Museum) and find it totally invigorating, energizing. It used to be the sights on the walks to and from, but now the interest is almost exclusively the works and the personnel and the space. All the little things, the totem the Vietnamese managed to sell me even after I’d thought I was smart enough to resist these charming youngsters..and than that blessed by the sweet fellow who gave me a beautiful catalog for nothing that almost all the others charge a minimum of $20 for.

    Her bullshit about the consensus is to some degree true, but at the final stage. She’s such an intellectual slob, she doesn’t even bother to mention, much less enumerate, why this would be so. She dare not mention one of the most obvious: CONNECTIONS. That’s surely how Tino Sehgal sells his even more worthless performance-art things, which the new owner not only has to pay for but then has to spend enormous amounts of real time protecting and re-creating such stupid content as “This is so contemporary”, etc. NIcola’s things were much like this, and she got some recognition, but not do anywhere near this degree; but she also did design of bizarre furniture, occasionally interesting, which is more than Sehgal does.

    So that, interrelations between art-world figures gradually drive up prices, but the ‘quality signals’ have to be exactly the same kind of data-gathering for targeted ads that Google and Facebook do, to the tune of much more enormous profits than even the collectors sell the works at auction get, not even mentioning the artists $0. And this would be a new kind of totem itself for the super-rich, it would literally give it more value the more expensive it was. That’s not that new, but since Hirst, I hadn’t noticed it as much in art sales. So the connections are reviews, pronouncements by important dealers and so on, but the ‘quality signals’ are not necessarily that concerned with quality at all–it’s a calculation, with or without the algorithms of Facebook advertising and surveillance, of what will fit that niche of overpriced things popular with a partiular kind of superrich person incapable of making any difference in Koons and Picasso. Come to think of it, Warhol may have been important in this process of degradation. Some may like just the sensation of spending the dollars, others may be thinking immediately of re-selling.

    Yes, the matter of art in regional galleries and ‘unseen art’ is a good point, but people who do see it in those places sometimes purchase it. It’s also true that you see art everywhere, including what I said about what i used to see walking to and from the Chelsea galleries, which has been reduced to things I had never looked at–jewelry stores with precious stones, no matter for what sex–and I don’t see anything in the streets anymore as I always used to, yes, even after Tahiti and Bora Bora and Malibu, etc. or flying over Grand Canyon. Somehow the galleries still do have many imaginative individuals. But if it’s limited to professional artists who are at least making a living and getting shows (actually, it’s much harder to get a show at a Chelsea gallery than she even lets on–and you do have to know people), her last sentence really is extraordinary. Anybody who wants to see art can see it, and if any piece of art was in a private home, nobody but the owners and whoever they wanted to see it did see it. There was plenty of other. The ‘galleries closing’ is just another thing picked up from other people; even if statistically true, the number of galleries in New York is huge, and probably in Chicago and I know L.A. and San Francisco have a lot of them.

    Made me realize that I rarely ask for the price if it’s not given on the directory or next to the work, where you will often find it. Artists are everywhere, but in terms of art that’s for sale, ALL of it is relatively expensive, because they are luxury goods. The million-dollar blue diamond that the sexy blonde put on for me because it made her feel really sexy then…that’s understood as ‘for the super-rich’, but a perfectly cut diamond or ruby is a work of art too. I draw the line at touring ladies’ couture stores, but most of the jewelry is women’s. I tried to find in them the kind of diamond necklace Delphine Seyrig wore in ‘Marienbad’, but couldn’t find not only a similar necklace, but nobody in any of the places ever heard of ‘Marienbad’. Dismal.


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