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Will Auction Houses Remain the Future of the Art Market?

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For the average ‘70s Joe, the phrase “art world” probably conjured up Bohemian images of grubby, skeletal painters smoking inside, but I’d bet you a salami sandwich that your current association with the phrase involves more suits than hand-rolled cloves or East Village romance. The rise of market spectacle during the inflation-heavy ‘80s economic boom afforded a brash, glitzy veneer to the theater of the public auction, once the exclusive domain of the rich and stodgy, not the rich and famous. Today, trophy lots, or masterpieces, are expected to make headlines and break records on a seasonal basis, feeding the self-reflexive mythology of value that lends the game its glamour. This is late capitalist commodity fetishism writ large, of course, but it also functions as a keyhole into the way art impacts and is impacted by broader cultural attitudes.

Much journalistic fuss has been made about this month’s art auctions in New York, represented by the triopoly of Christie’s, Phillips, and Sotheby’s. Projected for the biggest contraction in ten years, the semi-annual sales of high-end Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary art were targeted for sales of $1.2 billion, down 24% from 2018. After a decade of splashy headlines (Hockney’s 90 million dollar price tag comes to mind), the predictions felt damning. With no work on the docket expected to fetch over $50 million, collectors have been panicking—what could this mean for the market at large? Much of the problem resided in the lack of big-ticket lots, which have reportedly “dried up” over the last five years; the private estates and collections that delivered surefire hits were no longer delivering reliably.

However, contemporary sales have improved for the fifth straight year, and auction houses posted small gains in almost every other bracket. Notably, “ultra-contemporary” work sold for its highest total in six years, a massive 204% growth since 2018. In the absence of Imp-Mod heavy hitters, auction houses are also investing more resources in overlooked talent and emergent names. While all of these rubrics constitute good news for both auction houses and the art market in general, an icy breeze of concern drifts through these stories. Some of that queasiness is informed by a sea-change at Sotheby’s, which recently went private, a move that insulates the house from mercurial buyers and heralds the effective end of auction house transparency, such as it is. Private auctions facilitated by the big three have already been on the rise for years. The ‘80s boom did give way to ‘90s austerity, after all, and while recessions past have never managed to topple the tower, gatekeepers are starting to wonder… what happens now?

A historical analysis of art auctions reveals their developmental trajectory. Auctions have been around since at least 500 B.C., and started as a way to liquidate assets accrued in battle; human, more often than not. The first important art collection to come under public hammer was the Earl of Oxford’s in 1742, followed by Dr. Richard Mead’s pictures, coins, and engraved gems sold through Abraham Langford in 1754. Both were anomalies for the time; regular practice involved private invitations and individually priced objects. The explosion of Dutch still-lives in the 17th century led to the first market for art objects, but the salient Protestant attitudes of the time prevented luxury goods from entering fully into open trade. It wasn’t until the first half of the 1800s that a growing European merchant class transformed the auction into a form of pageantry unto itself, centralizing in Paris, Rome, and London. The French Revolution solidified London’s ascent over Paris, for obvious reasons, only giving way to the United States after its own Civil War, thanks to the appetites of early American industrialists.

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