Blog featuring artwork of Wes Freese

Economics of Art

with one comment

William Powhida, “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System”, 2010

Reuters’ Felix Salmon has an interesting article on William Powhida’s “A Guide to the Market Oligopoly System”.  One of the most interesting points of the article regards the value of artworks:

“Most people who buy art will, to a first approximation, ‘lose’ all their money: like most other consumer products, it won’t or can’t be resold after being bought. Many of those people kid themselves that their work is ‘worth’ roughly what it would cost them to replace it; they’re only disillusioned when they actually try to sell the thing and find no willing buyers. And even the clear-eyed often think of their art as a lottery ticket: it might be worthless today, but maybe, in the future, if the artist becomes hugely successful, it could be worth a fortune.”

It’s surprising to me that the value of art purchased from artists in the tiers “Submerged Artists (Yearning Masses)”, the “Emerging Artists (Commercial Galleries)” and even the “Primary Market (Blue Chip Galleries)” effectively drops to zero once it is purchased.  Most people, including me, mistakenly believe that the art product they purchase retains some financial value even after purchase.  I was taught in art school that art always appreciates in value, and I think most people tend to believe this too.  However, it does seem sensible that re-sale of the product becomes mostly impossible unless the artist progresses up the pyramid (of Powhida’s chart).  

Let’s exclude buyers who purchase art solely for the purpose of decorating their home, buyers who derive aesthetic pleasure from viewing art, and those who never intend to re-sell the product in the market.  The subject of art’s value more aptly concerns active participants investing in art as a commodity.  For the serious investor, works purchased from artists in the top two tiers will offer only marginal returns (0.55%).  Thus, the only real prospect for a return on an art investment is to buy works from the bottom three tiers of the pyramid, which might be re-sold once the artist ascends in status to the upper tiers of the pyramid.  

Since the risk is so high concerning purchases from the first three tiers, the investor is also buying a valued interest in the artist’s career.  The buyer has a vested interest in the artist’s well-being and future success, and thus buying more than one piece of artwork from an artist, and encouraging others to purchase an artist’s work is acting in an investor’s own self-interest.  You often hear investors say that collecting is almost like an addiction, and that they can’t just buy one piece of work.

Future returns on the re-sale of art for the most part go to the investor and not the artist.  The only opportunity for artists to make significant wages is if they sell their products within the higher tiers of the pyramid.  While the bottom tiers of the pyramid are buyer’s markets, the upper tiers favor sellers.  However, the number of buyers diminish in the upper tiers, but the risk and rewards diminish for buyers of high end art commodities.  It’s important to note that Powhida’s illustration is a guide to an oligopoly market system, meaning a system of sellers, and as such, this is a guide for artists to make their way in selling their work.

The value of an artwork is the most quixotic aspect to the commodification of art.  Similar to the valuation of property, the value of artwork is dependent on what a willing buyer-willing seller will agree to.  In the real estate market, there are three primary methodologies to appraising a property’s value: the cost approach, the market approach (comparable sales) and the income approach.  These approaches inform willing buyers and sellers.  The appraisal of artworks also have standardized methodologies for valuing artistic property, however those methodologies become less relied upon the further up the pyramid an artist travels.  Wild speculation about a piece’s cultural value is what informs buyers and sellers of artworks at the top of the pyramid.  The physical condition, age, originality and other physical aspects of the work will still influence value to a certain degree, but  aspects such as the cost to make the artwork, or what kind of income the commodity might generate are not factored into the value of art being sold in the auction houses.

An artwork’s value is appraised differently depending on where an artist is within the pyramid.  Knowing how the different works are valued in the different tiers is not so well known.  For the “Yearning Masses”, artworks are primarily valued depending on the cost of materials, the time to create the works, the condition of the object, the size, and various other physical properties, but only to a certain point.  As Powhida’s illustration shows, there is far greater supply than demand for artworks in the “Yearning Masses”, which drives prices down.  The cost of production, specifically the amount of labor that went into the creation of the work, most often far exceeds sale prices of artworks.  

With little or no hope of future return for most of these works, and considering an excess of supply, the market cannot bear the true costs of production of artworks.  Comparable sales of other artwork is a greater indicator of value for these works, however the set of data (comparable sales) informing the value is mostly opaque and highly unreliable.  Unlike real estate sales that are by law public knowledge and can be easily obtained, sales of artworks are not public knowledge, as commercial galleries actively work to maintain the information on sales of artwork as privileged.  In the long run I think this is more of a detriment than a benefit to sellers, buyers and artists.

Artists that want to scuttle up the next tier in the pyramid must begin to determine what context they want their artwork to exist in.  Artists who seek to create artworks that illustrate their individual life or the whims of their artistic story will rarely go beyond the Commercial Galleries (Primary Market First Tier).  An artwork’s content must begin to orient itself into a branch of art history for the artist to progress to the Second Tier of the Primary Market.  As Powhida’s diagram states, an artwork’s value “is determined by [its] symbolic content, rather than [its] physical characteristics”, but “this might not be true.”  There are many very talented artists exhibiting and selling in commercial galleries across the country.  However artworks that seek to place themselves within the stream of art history are the only ones with the possibility for an increase in value later on.

As art history, particularly painting, is the signifier of a cultural history of ideas, what is New is what moves history forward.  But newness alone does not progress an artist’s work from Emerging status to Established status.  Artwork must be relatively new and intellectually compelling relative to artworks of the past.  The accomplishment of placing the artwork within the stream of art history is orchestrated by art critics, intellectuals, publishers, advertisers and historians.  These are the outfits that pull and push the market levers that begin the process of commodifying artworks.

An artist’s escalation to “Established Artist” status is also dependent on how well the work’s subject matter adheres to the increasingly focussed brand that is taking shape.  The context of the work becomes crystalized at this point.  While an artist can partly define and tweak the context of the work being created during this phase, there is a short window in which the work will have optimal value.  The works created after this tier will mostly digress from the perceived brand.  Most artists abhor repeating themselves and the necessity of perceived progression in their art literally compels them to separate themselves from the success they previously achieved.  Rarely does an artist strike gold twice.

Only artists who stick to works that fit into what are now well defined specifications of their brand, and who also develop a tightly organized means of production to churn out like-minded works will reach the Museum tier.  It may be highly profitable for the artist, but market forces are already at work as investors become increasingly wary of the value of individual works of art because of the increasing number of similar works which dilute the value of the works previously purchased.

The quality of the work becomes mostly irrelevant when dealing with “Art Stars”.  These artists are enshrined in the history of art and have been placed in a culture’s collective consciousness.  The re-sale of such works may still only bring negligible profit to previous buyers, but possession of such works pay indirect dividends more in terms of power in society.  Usually the artist has deceased by the time he or she reaches “Art Star” status, but increasingly artists are living out a good portion of their lives as “Art Stars”.  This is an effect of the art market.  The quality of their work has long since depleted but an artist’s brand name product has achieved a mostly stabilized common understanding of value among investors.

The common denominator in an artist’s travels on the pyramid highway is sales of artwork.  Sales codify both value of the work and an artist’s standing in culture.


Written by Wes Freese

January 10, 2011 at 2:21 pm

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The economics of art is not all about the market.

    See my blog


    October 11, 2011 at 10:53 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: