Decoding a dire message about the art market

ArtNet.com just tweeted this dire headline: “Art Market Poised to Plummet in October,” which was linked to an article on Luxist. (Honestly, it’s a site I’d never heard of, which doesn’t have a tag line. Seems to be for luxury sales and living, which might explain why I’d never heard of it.)

In any event, I made the mistake of retweeting this headline as is. If you read the headline and read the statistics on the article, you would be hard pressed to find any good news about selling contemporary art.

Karen Koch

Karen Koch, Memories of Lanterns and Lightning Bugs. Acrylic, 18 x 24 inches. ©The Artist

Here’s the problem: Most of my Twitter followers and blog readers aren’t at all affected by this. The “art market” referred to in this article is really, as John T. Unger pointed out, an auction sale estimate. In fact, when most articles refer to the “art market,” they are talking about sales at the big auction houses. Auctions usually (except for last year’s big sale by artist Damien Hirst) focus on secondary markets–art that is being sold by dealers and collectors.

Had your work appear at auction recently? I didn’t think so. That’s why you can safely read these dire predictions and know that they have very little to do with you and your own personal art market.

The article mentioned here also says that collectors are turning to private sales in order to have “more control over the outcome of the transaction.” This doesn’t mean they’re buying directly from artists. This means they are offering works from their collection for sale through private dealers rather than auction houses.

Find out more

To learn more about the art market of big auction houses, I recommend the following books.

I Sold Andy Warhol (Too Soon) by Richard Polsky

Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark by Don Thompson

Talking Prices by Olav Velthuis

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6 comments to Decoding a dire message about the art market

  • Hi Alyson,
    Last weekend, I had dinner with a bunch of artists – some very well known and others on their way. Several of these who have been making a great living in the past decade had their sales plummet since last October. One who usually has a sell out show in Boston each year, only sold one painting there recently.

    On the other hand, two of the artists (both women) have not seen any drop in sales. All these artists sell through galleries. In fact, Kathy Anderson has seen a steady increase in her sales. Her paintings are not inexpensive, but not as expensive as the artist who only had one sale.

    I’ve heard from other artists in the 10K plus price range who are really suffering and quite worried right now. The ones in the 40K plus range seem to be unaffected by the downturn. The good news is that artists in the $1000 to $3000 range, for the most part have not seen any difference in their sales.

  • This article was so timely for a different reason. I was able to substitute a current sitiaton with the artist/artist friend, and it has been very helpful. Thank you for saying what you wrote!

  • It’s darned scary out there. In our gallery sales have dwindled, but yesterday we had a self-confessed “impulse” buyer take home an $11,000 painting. Sales of mId-range work have dropped over the edge. I’m grateful for every time someone is moved enough by my work, or art by one of the other artists we represent, to take it home.
    I was in Santa Fe last spring. In conversation with some gallery owners I was told that long-term buyers were still buying, but sales to new clients had really fallen off. While the auction houses are a microcosm unto themselves, the big picture is still uncertain, even for small galleries.
    Thanks for your insights, Alyson. You have your finger on the pulse and share your insights.

  • I should say that mid-range for us is under $10,000, so we’re way below the limbo stick in the auction dance. We’re just a little gallery in an out-of-the-way, lovely Vermont village.

  • I find it’s a good practice to ignore dire predictions of any kind, on any subject. Just as big drops in the auction house market aren’t affecting me, huge sales in that market didn’t affect me positively, either! I find that the more I get my work out there & connect with people, the better I do. Period. Here’s to keeping your head firmly planted in the sand—at least as far as predictions go!

  • This points to a pretty common problem on the Internet today, and that is the velocity at which information is posted, and then reposted through a variety of Internet channels. It takes time to absorb, and review for relevence, information that is made available through any news channel, be it the newspaper, radio, TV, Internet “news sources”, and the like. In the effort for websites and bloggers to keep up with the pace of the news, shortcuts are sometimes taken. Should Alyson be cautious about what news she passes on? Sure. Should we all make sure that we actually read what’s behind a news headline to make sure that it really applies to us, or that the news is actually relevent, or for that matter, even factually accurate? You bet.

    As far as business in the art market, I develop software that artists use to manage their businesses. All I’ve heard is, of course, anecdotal, but it seems that there’s a real hodge-podge of sales results out there depending on where you are, what you sell, and how much you sell it for. There doesn’t seem to be a clear direction to where sales are headed across the art industry. Some people are doing very well, some people aren’t doing well at all. Kind of how it’s always been.