Art market chart of the day, auction gross edition

By Felix Salmon
December 16, 2013

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I had lunch with Artnet’s Thierry Dumoulin last week, and we talked a bit about the classic interactive NYT chart of box-office grosses. (It’s getting on for six years old, now, but it’s still top-notch.) I wondered if it might be possible to do something similar for artists — to show how different artists have their auction peaks at different times, and how some artists fade away while others become newly fashionable.

This chart is not exactly that, for a number of reasons — but it’s interesting all the same. Artnet’s Katharine Markley put together a list of 25 artists, split between Impressionist (the ones I’ve colored greenish); Modern (yellowish); and Contemporary (purplish). They’re not necessarily representative of the art market as a whole, but they certainly weren’t cherry-picked in any way: this is all the data I got. The chart above shows how much money each artist grossed at auction in each year from 1998 to 2013 (with the 2013 data going up to the end of November); I’ve also adjusted all the data for inflation, so it’s all in 2013 dollars.

The first thing I noted is that my priors were wrong: while Monet was big in 1989 and Warhol has had a more recent resurgence, in general you don’t see artists having particular peaks at particular times. I’m sure it would be possible to construct a dataset which does show that, but overall it’s impressive just how consistent the relative strength of various artists is, over time.

The second thing to note is that although the market is looking extremely strong today, and had an equally big peak before the crisis in 2007, neither peak is actually higher than the last big bubble, in 1989-90. Indeed, if you look just at the artists who were selling strongly back then — the Modern and Impressionist crew — today’s sales figures are still significantly lower than they were. It’s only the recent surge in Contemporary sales (and, specifically, in Warhol) which is driving the overall figure towards the old record.

What the chart tells me, then, is that the Impressionist market has been very consistent since the 1990 bubble burst, and is showing no new signs of frothiness. The Modern market is getting back to its 1990 levels, and is utterly dominated by Picasso. And the Contemporary market has come rocketing out of nowhere to its current position of dominance; even ten years ago it was basically nothing.

None of this is particularly scientific, but it does help to put today’s record-setting auction prices in perspective. Once you adjust for inflation, they’re basically back at 1990 levels, as is underscored by the fact that the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction remains Vincent Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr Gachet. If the rule of bubbles is that each successive bubble is larger than the last, then that might mean we have a little ways yet to go, before this one bursts.

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