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The best books on The Art Market

recommended by Georgina Adam

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Are the prices paid at auction for works of art a sign of the art world's health? Or a warning of its imminent decline? Journalist and art market observer Georgina Adam discusses five books that cast light on an often shadowy market.

  • 1

    Rogues’ Gallery
    by Philip Hook

  • 2

    From Manet to Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market
    by Peter Wilson

  • 3

    The $12 Million Stuffed Shark
    by Don Thompson

  • 4

    The Art of Forgery
    by Noah Charney

  • 5

    Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich
    by Chrystia Freeland

Are the prices paid at auction for works of art a sign of the art world's health? Or a warning of its imminent decline? Journalist and art market observer Georgina Adam discusses five books that cast light on an often shadowy market.

Georgina Adam

Georgina Adam has spent more than thirty years writing about the art market and the arts in general. She was editor of the Art Market section of The Art Newspaper between 2000 and 2008, then editor-at-large. She wrote a weekly column for the Financial Times for eight years until 2016. In 2014 she published Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century. In addition to her specialisation in the art market, Adam is particularly interested in emerging cultural centres. She lectures at Sotheby's Institute in London and participates in panels about the market: she is a board member of Talking Galleries, patron of the Association of Women Art Dealers and member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). Her book, Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses Of The Art Market In The 21st Century, was published in 2018.  

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What is the art market? Could give us a sense of the size and the scope of what we’re talking about?

It is a market, and the commodity that’s traded in the art market is art. Anything from prints and editioned works to unique pieces such as sculpture and painting. Multiples might include something from a decoration store, right through a limited edition Picasso valued into the millions. In its entirety, the art market also encompasses things like antiques. But the strongest and largest part, is, of course, painting, sculpture, photography, unique works.

In general, when they talk about the art market, most people are referring to higher value works from about $1000 upwards that are traded. Unlike other commodities, there’s no exchange like, for example the metals exchange or a stock exchange. Art is sold through a number of different channels. It’s sold at auction, which is probably what a lot of people associate with it. It’s also sold at commercial galleries. It can be sold through directly from the artist’s studio, and it’s sold online. In the last decade or so, art fairs have also become a major sales platform for galleries. One interesting feature of the art market is that artists almost inevitably need somebody to sell for them. The artist selling directly does exist, but it’s a minimal part of the art market.

The value of the art market, which actually hasn’t changed that much over the past 10 years or so, is in the region of $60 billion a year, which sounds like a lot, but actually compared to other industries is not that huge. It hasn’t shifted very much in the last 10 years, but what has changed is the composition of the figure, with the top end much stronger and the middle weaker.

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There is an overwhelming concentration of attention and interest at the top end. We are really talking paintings here and, and some sculpture. Big name works have really taken off. Most people will have heard of prices well over $100 million for a single work of art and, of course, in November 2015, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi topped all previous records by selling for $450 million.

There are attempts made to estimate the total value of the art market, for example in the annual reports by Clare McAndrew. She does her best, but she is dealing with transactions that often happen outside the public eye, or even in secret. Nevertheless, we can get an estimate from publicly recorded auction sales, plus McAndrew’s belief that sales are roughly split 50-50 between art galleries and auction houses.

Obviously, with multiples, such as photography and sculpture, they may be in editions, but those editions certainly at the higher-end tend to be limited. This is what distinguishes art from say a commodity like gold. One gold bar is the same as another gold bar. One Picasso is definitely not the same as another Picasso. The Art Market responds to elements of supply and demand like any other market. However what’s being traded is very close to being unique. There may be editioned works and series of art works for sale, but on the whole, art is traded as a unique object.

Finally, art does have other specificities, because it’s not just a product. Art carries with it the creative power of its creator. It has significance beyond just being an object of value or a luxury good. It is an artist’s way of reflecting on the world. These symbolic, art historical, aesthetic aspects of art are important, essential. The fact of a thriving art market should not blind us to these features, nor should we just reduce it to its monetary value. But don’t forget, as well, the “bragging power” that possessing a highly sought-after work of art can confer on its owner.

The fact of its price tag—the prices that are paid for the really high-end works in the marketplace—gives the sense that the art market is something that’s new. But in fact, it’s been around for a very long time. As you say, artists have always needed a patron to represent them to the world of buyers or the high and mighty, the influential in society. This is a relationship, between the artist and dealer, that in one form or another has existed at least since the Renaissance, as Philip Hook traces in his book Rogues’ Gallery: A History of Art and Its Dealers.

We can go back even further than the Renaissance. In ancient Rome, for example, there was for a time a great vogue for possessing Greek sculpture, the ‘earliest civilization’. As a result, there was actually a thriving trade in fakes. You had people faking Greek sculpture and selling it to rich Romans. Sound familiar?

Art has had a high price tag through the ages. It’s been a luxury product which by extension has been exchanged in some form of marketplace for many centuries. Even before the Renaissance there used to be art fairs, in Holland in the late Middle Ages, for example.

Tracing the history of the art dealer, as Hook does, bridges the distant past with the present. Early art dealers were a precursor to the auction houses that today are some of the most visible, emblematic art institutions out there, certainly as concerns the art market, if not necessarily the more academic or aesthetic end of the art world.

It’s important to remember that the auction houses which today appear to be the most important force in the commercial world of art—the best known ones like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, even Bonhams and Phillips—were founded 250 years ago, approximately. They were wholesale operations at the beginning. They sold to dealers, who were the public face of the art market, and auction prices in those days tended to be lower than dealer prices. It was the dealer who bought at auction and marked it up. And this was not something the general public was aware of, in the way they are today.

There’s more to it than just a commercial transaction. I think it’s very interesting that dealers had such an influence on taste. When they chose to show an artist, they believed in that artist. They were really pushing forward taste, and they were curating shows, and they were sometimes giving stipends to artists to support their work. There are numerous examples of dealers that influenced and directed artistic trends. That’s what Leo Castelli did in America, for example. He would enable artists. And in doing so, he had a bearing on the direction of art history in the latter half of the twentieth century.

“He took the auction houses from being somewhat grubby dens of art dealings and turned them into somewhere to see and be seen”

Until the end of the last century, auction houses generally did not sell on the primary market. They didn’t sell works from the artists’ studios. They were purely acting on the secondary market; that is, when artwork was offered as a resale. The dealers did all the spadework of finding an artist, promoting him, and finding collectors to buy an artist’s work.

A seminal figure in the artist-dealer relationship, and particularly in the evolution of the auction house, was Peter Wilson, who is featured in Rogues’ Gallery.

He was a rogue, it has to be said. He was sometimes a little bit careless, shall we say, in how he operated, but he was a genius. He took the auction houses from being somewhat grubby dens of art dealings and turned them into somewhere to see and be seen. Wilson produced smart evening sales with everybody in black tie. He even managed to get the Queen to come along to a view of one of the big sales. This was in the 1950s. Singlehandedly, he put the auction houses on the map as being a society thing to do—to go to private views with other smart people going, and the sales themselves attracting attention for being big ticket events. Now the big auction sales are, of course, the high moment of the art calendar, and a way of tracking the market.

They’ve become this aspirational event. It’s fascinating to read his reminiscences in Manet to Manhattan. It’s certainly fair to say that he inaugurated an era of spectacle in the art world, making it more about showmanship than scholarship. This has maybe reached its apotheosis in the current CEO of Sotheby’s, who was formerly CEO of Madison Square Garden. We’re at a point in our history where the spectacle has really become the foremost function in some ways of the art auction, because it also helps to reinforce the societal value of the objects in question.

That’s for sure. Manet to Manhattan, which is an excellent book, stops in 1990. In 1990, the art market suddenly collapsed due to a number of forces, including a collapse in the real estate market in several countries and the invasion of Kuwait. But that was a time when Japanese collectors were buying. He tracks the buildup to the sale of Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which, by the way, has disappeared. It made this colossal price at the time, and nobody knows where it is now!

Doubtless sitting in a freeport somewhere, collecting dust in the shadows.

Very possibly! Manet to Manhattan does track that conversion of the auction house from being a wholesale operation, and so an insider’s operation, rather secretive, to becoming, as you say, the spectacle.

It’s very interesting that in today’s world, we’re living increasingly in an event-driven society. People are more attracted now by events than they are by product in many ways. This absolutely ties in to what the auction houses have become, the site of this extraordinary spectacle.

Take for example Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. Christie’s had it travel around the world. They took it to Hong Kong, London, New York. There were queues outside to see this fabled ‘lost’ masterpiece. It was superlative event management!

Of course, the evening sales themselves are a spectacle, so it’s no surprise that there’s been a big shift in the way these companies are run. Tad Smith, Sotheby’s CEO, comes from Madison Square Garden, the concert and sporting event stadium in the heart of New York City. It is all about showmanship. He’s not an art person. Before, it would have been de rigueur to have the art historical credentials to occupy a position like that.

We can’t be too far off the day where a former investment banker becomes CEO of one of these organisations, because the two worlds are coming ever closer. You have a lot of the patrons of the arts from the finance world.

The convergence of these two worlds is actually a growing trend. Many of the emails I get today are about some form of investment in art. I get things about art funds, and, of course, the growth of freeports and art warehouses, which I cover in my book also signals this desire to buy art not for its aesthetic values and its symbolic values, but to buy it for its investment potential. I have to say that this is something I regret deeply. At the moment, the big buzzword is Blockchain. I’m getting lots of questions about how Blockchain can be used to innovate in the art market.

The fact that Blockchain and art are being mentioned in the same phrase is extraordinary. But then one feature of our current state of cultural production is that art objects are often produced and then stored. They become stores of value. And that value seems to be rooted in the spectacle. Peter Wilson clearly understood the importance of spectacle, of marketing when effectively what you have to sell is an object of cultural value, but where the value is societally determined, very much like a branded luxury good or a Veblen good of conspicuous consumption.

This maybe is a nice segue to the next book that you’ve highlighted which is by Canadian academic and economist Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark. Damien Hirst has produced something to the tune of 1500 spot paintings that have sold, in some cases, in the millions. The fact of their ubiquity actually perversely one of the things that makes them more valuable, not less valuable, turning the old supply-and-demand dictum of classical economics on its head.

The fact that there are a number of comparable works produced today like the spot paintings, actually works in the favour of sales, because it enables financiers and art advisors to make nice little charts which they can then show to their buyers/investors, or what you might call “specullectors”. I cite that in my book, and joking aside, I like the term. Or COINS, collectors only in name. When the financial services industry is looking to give advice on deploying investment capital, they want to be able to demonstrate, how are these spot paintings performing? What’s the track record, and how can you track their value in the marketplace?

The fact that there are a number of works is actually a plus—and their value tends to increase with presence in museums. Collectors—or rather buyers—feel reassured if they know that of the five Balloon Dogs by Jeff Koons, there’s one with Eli Broad, one with François Pinault, and so on. Ironically, that is actually a reassurance for the purchaser, the fact that this is not in fact a completely a unique product.

But it is topsy-turvy, because, of course, when a completely unique product comes on the market, such as Salvator Mundi, then the bidding goes sky high, much higher than I think anybody expected. Perhaps this was a classic instance of game theory, or more simply, as rumoured, a mistake. That that the two Arab bidders didn’t realize they were in fact up against that each other.

“Whether we are talking about the impressionists, postwar and contemporary art sales, the highest prices are concentrated on just a few artists”

The $12 Million Stuffed Shark talks about supply and demand. Supply is a critical question. It’s a market that has expanded out to countries which didn’t used to buy art. So there is more demand—no doubt about it. And that encourages more supply in the marketplace. However, in his book, Don Thompson does point out that most contemporary art will not be resalable at any price.

There is a concentration on about 25 artists in the art market. Studies (which I cite in my book) have shown that whether we are talking about the impressionists, postwar and contemporary art sales, the highest prices are concentrated on just a few artists.

So you do actually have classic supply and demand. You have a few billionaires chasing a very small number of pictures, and that’s pushing the prices up. If you start looking further down, if you start looking at the more volume end of the market, you will find that it’s not that strong.

I suppose the museums themselves are helping to drive this trend of concentration, to the extent that we’ve become an event-fixated society, and museums feel the need to stage ever more spectacular events to draw the crowds.

Well, you need to distinguish here between private museums that belong to a very rich person, a billionaire generally these days, and a state museum. In America, a museum like MOCA or LACMA is, in theory, a private museum, and they get their funding from donors on the whole, although they sometimes get it from the local municipality as well, so it’s not a hard and fast distinction, but it’s still worth considering who is behind a given institution.

What has definitely driven the contemporary art market has been the phenomenal growth of private museums who all concentrate on the same contemporary art basically. It’s a segment of the art market where supply is available, and they will all want to tick the boxes in a sense. They all want to have a Damien Hirst, a Gilbert & George, because they want the reassurance that we spoke of before.

Institutions do want big pieces; they do want spectacular pieces. If you look at Tate with their Turbine Hall installation—this is the sort of thing that brings people who might not otherwise visit. Whether it’s private or publicly funded, a museum has to bring people in. Just seeing the permanent collection is not necessarily going to bring people in, certainly not repeatedly, in ever increasing numbers.

One of today’s problems is that publicly funded museums are in no way able to compete with private museums. Their acquisition budgets are tiny compared to the sort of money that can be spent by somebody like Eli Broad—Los Angeles’ most prominent art museum is called The Broad—who has huge amounts of money at his disposal. Or certain Chinese collectors. When you consider that Liu Yiqian and his Long museum could spend $170 million on a Modigliani, there’s simply no public institution that can compete. That represents years and years of an average museum’s acquisitions budget.

We are talking about very big numbers. What’s more, the lack of regulation, not only creates the space for arbitrage, but also the space for forgeries and all sorts of duplicity in the art world. One of the things I liked about The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney is the way that it highlights the motivations of the forgers. It is a very interesting reflection of the motivations and psychology, the perverse incentives of buyer and seller, on both sides of the transaction.

Yes. The different sections of the book are very compelling—crime, greed, whether it’s the money, or revenge…

Genius, money, revenge. Revenge was one of the best chapters.

Forgery has been with us since ancient times. Even Michelangelo is alleged to have made forgeries. What’s interesting about today is the uptick in the amount of forgery, and that of course is related to the rise in values, there’s no doubt about that. If you can sell something for 10 million you can invest a million in getting one of the many, technically outstanding Chinese copyists to produce decoys. This is by no means to criticize Chinese artists or their work. But it is striking that Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese painter working out of Queens, managed to hoodwink, over a number of decades, buyers of high-end art, and maybe the Knoedler Gallery itself. The gallery have always claimed they were taken in by the forgeries as well, but as they have settled all the lawsuits bar one, there hasn’t really been a conclusive finding about this.

Absolutely extraordinary. As Don Thomson writes, “All you need is capital and confidence.” This industry, if indeed it is an industry, you don’t need qualifications necessarily, and that opens up the field to some really colorful bargains.

Noah Charney points out that it’s not all big ticket artwork being forged. You’ve got people who are just forging for money by making some cheap prints. Everyone hears about the high-priced forgeries, things that hit the headlines, but actually there’s a huge number of forged prints being made and sold. Nowadays, printing techniques are really very sophisticated. It’s now very difficult to tell the difference between a forgery and an original. These forgers are just in it for the money, selling their counterfeits over the internet.

“For a start, the victim is art history itself”

At the other end of the scale, particularly for Old Masters, it’s not just for greed, it’s also making a point, proving that you can do it and proving that you can hoodwink supposed connoisseurs. In fine art, the term “Old Master” traditionally refers to great European painters practising during the period roughly 1300-1830. In addition there is an element, which Noah Charney points out, that though it’s considered a victimless crime, it’s not. For a start, the victim is art history itself. When people actually go in, and forge provenances the way John Drewe famously did, they corrupt our knowledge of art history. I think this notion of these forgers being folk heroes, of being Robin Hood figures, is very unfair. To my mind they are not folk heroes—they’re villains. Robin Hood supposedly robbed the rich to pay the poor. Forgers are robbing the rich; they aren’t paying the poor….

One might end up rooting for the villain in that some of these forgers’ hoodwinked clients appear to be, arguably, even more despicable than they are! Before we move onto plutocrats, however, do you feel that perhaps the era of great forgeries is coming to an end? Technology and forensic science has come to a point where it’s very difficult, maybe not impossible, but very difficult to create a forged Old Master painting.

I don’t think that forgery is going to peak out. An interesting case is ongoing at the time—it concerns a man called Giuliano Ruffini, who has handled some quite spectacularly good apparent forgeries of Old Masters. There’s a Hals, there’s a Gentileschi, a Cranach and there’s a Parmigianino—all under suspicion. And in some of the cases the experts disagree—for example, the Gentileschi was exhibited at the National Gallery.

Forensics is part of the solution, and technology is improving, which will make it more difficult for forgers. But it’s not necessarily going to stop them, because of the money involved, and also because of the motivation of some collectors. They’re not necessarily going to take their work to be examined. What is more, while science can prove, in most cases, that something is 100% a forgery, it can’t prove that something is 100% genuine! Who held the brush in the case of an Old Master? The artist, or a talented assistant in his studio?

In that case, perhaps the move to digital media and technologies in art is likely to make counterfeiting more prevalent? As a corollary, some big name artists and their factories—for that’s effectively what they are, as you point out in your book—have become like sites of mass production. In this way, artists have arguably become almost like forgers of themselves, an ersatz version of their own original ideas in order to supply this market, so desperately hungry for the big ticket names that will burnish the credentials of this or that private collection.

The situation is complicated by the fact that workshops—such as Rubens’—employed lots of assistants. How much was Rubens by himself? Today’s artists don’t always make a work of art themselves; they might just give instructions. This has notably been a problem with the Warhol estate, particularly that series of works that were first accepted as original, and then rejected. I think that the market will always prize, for example, Damien Hirst’s early spot paintings, because those are the ones Hirst was actually involved with. A vast difference in prices reflects that. It’s true that Damien Hirst, when he produces what he produced in Venice, isn’t forging himself—he’s producing luxury goods. Of course, counterfeiting is the bane of the luxury goods industry, absolutely.

In 2008, he was also the principal bidder for a lot of his own work at auction, so in a way he’s also his own market. Here’s somebody who either single handedly, or with his apprentices, has effectively become something along the lines of central banker, where he’s minting his own currency. In his latest exhibit of newly minted spot paintings at Houghton Hall, these canvases are like giant bank notes on the wall, stores of value or Bitcoin for oligarchs, as high-end London real estate was recently described.

Interesting you should say that. We see a lot of art world startups using Blockchain technologies to actually produce their own cryptocurrency. One of them is actually called “Art”, which is extraordinary.

Art world people who are selling using Blockchain or working with it in some way claim that it’s going to contribute towards more transparency, which isn’t something that the commercial side of the art world likes, necessarily. Lack of transparency can be good business when dealing with the class of courtiers, dealers and curators. The idea is that once you put information on to the Blockchain about a work of art, then that is secure and a complete representation of provenance and ownership.

The whole point, of course, is that it’s a decentralised register—anyone can access the information. I think it still needs to play out a great deal, until we see exactly how Blockchain could benefit the art world. I think it could definitely be of a benefit to living artists. Where they can make a work of art, and then they can put it on the Blockchain, and that will enable them to protect their own intellectual property. If fakes are produced in the future, this technology will enable one to go back and compare. So digital technologies like Blockchain, from the point of view of new artists, could actually be rather a good thing. It does not, however, necessarily assure an art work’s value.

“Art world people who are selling using Blockchain or working with it in some way claim that it’s going to contribute towards more transparency”

They’re like giant bank notes, as you say. But the thing with cryptocurrencies is they’re not actually underpinned by The Federal Reserve of the United States America, or by a government or some higher authority. You can completely lose your money if you get involved in some of these newer cryptocurrencies being produced. There is a parallel here to works of art: I personally think that, although we probably won’t be around to see it, in a few decades, a great deal of work by Damien Hirst and Company will be virtually unsaleable. I think there will be a massive devaluation because there’s just so much of it. It’s all being sustained at the moment by demand, but markets are cyclical, and always have been. And fashion is fickle.

That dovetails with your final selection, Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. Who is it that can (and would) part with hundreds of millions of dollars for an artwork? What are their motivations? To the extent that art market transactions are like a high-stakes poker game amongst ultra-high net worth individuals, one might be inclined to say, ‘Who cares?’

Chrystia Freeland’s book, however, is a sobering account about why we should care. The top-end art buyers may not be exhaustively representative of the art market, but they are nevertheless representative of a global plutocracy. The fact of their existence, and their modus operandi, have grave socioeconomic implications. What she describes is almost like a separate class of citizenry, with tremendous amounts of influence on things like tax regimes.

There’s a sizeable difference between the extremely rich of today and the extremely rich of the last century. The extremely rich of today seem to be completely transnational, which I thought was relevant to the museums in the sense that the great philanthropists—the Mellons and the Carnegies, and so on—were rooted in their communities. They ultimately gave back. They were philanthropic, either endowing a museum or concert hall, or giving their art collections to museums.

“There is a big difference between the extremely rich of today and the extremely rich of the last century”

A very real difference today is that plutocrats are not often rooted in any community at all. They live in multiple locations. They may make their own private museums, but what will be the future? Before, these works of art would often go to a museum or public institution on their deaths. Today, that may not be the case. I very much question what will happen with the next generation, the heirs to these collections. Even if they do make philanthropic gifts, who will accept them if they have become generic or ubiquitous in some way?

To a very large extent, they’re all collecting the same thing. They’re all focusing on some 25 artists. They’ve all got their Gilbert and George, their Kiefer, their Grotjean, their Christopher Wool, who is probably a manipulated artist anyway. So what is going to happen two or three generations down the road?

Legacy is important. It may not turn out as expected, however. Take for example, to alight on your point about rootedness in community, the Sackler family.

Oh yes, purveyors of opioids to the American public.

This family is one of the most visible of philanthropic sponsors of the arts in the UK and the US, but the source of their wealth has become highly questionable. Whatever you may think about the allegations, isn’t this a modern day example of art being used in the same way as indulgences by the Church in the Middle Ages, to exculpate those whose riches have been earned in some sort of morally questionable way?

Art has tremendous cultural cache. Some oligarchs have founded art prizes, collected art in vast quantities. With a few, there is no doubt, it is a way of washing out your reputation and showing that actually you’re not such a bad guy, and here you are doing good for the community and getting kids into London museums.

Have you seen the ’Robo-Rembrandt’? A fascinating project, to reproduce robotically, an idealised version of a Rembrandt portrait. An algorithmic study of different component features of a typical Rembrandt portrait were fed to a robot that recreated this portrait in oils, right down to an accurate rendition of the painting’s topographic structure. Even if the result was somewhat wooden, it raises all sorts of fascinating questions about forgery, replication, prominence, authenticity.

One thing that makes art valuable is the fact that by owning this Picasso, to an extent, you have still a connection to Picasso the person. Or take a celebrity sale, like the recent Rockefeller auction, which gathered all sorts of headlines. His money clip made a colossal amount of money. The money clip itself is not worth anything. It’s the connection with that person.

I think ‘Robo-Rembrandt’ has gone wrong. You can produce the perfect Rembrandt with a machine, but you’ll never get that aspect of authorship. Somehow, by owning the true Picasso, you can touch and behold something made by his hand. Picasso touched it, and now it’s mine. And that adds to the value. It’s an emotional value, translated only very approximately into a monetary value.

Authenticity is important. Even if a painting is a beautiful copy and it’s perfect, if it’s not authentic it’s not worth as much. There are a number of values in a work of art. There’s the aesthetic value. There’s the symbolic value. There’s the art historical value. You can trace an important moment in history; for example, the moment that an artist moved from figurative expression and started painting abstracts. Well, the reproduction doesn’t have that.

Art is a mirror to society, and the art market is maybe a prism on that mirror. It’s been creating some peculiar and in some cases, disturbing distortions. To what extent are these colossal amounts of money recirculated to make the art world a more vibrant place? Or do they just sort of get shunted off into this invisible freeport land, never to be seen again? Is the art world a healthy place? Is it getting healthier or is it getting less healthy?

I think at the moment it’s less healthy. According to many of us who have been involved with it for a long time, it’s become a much more ruthless space. There’s a lot of financial manipulation, the use of art works to evade tax in one way or another, perhaps legally, but nevertheless, I don’t think this is a healthy trend. It’s become a sort of alternative currency as well.

From a financial perspective, however, the contemporary art—the biggest part of the market—is pretty safe. There’s such demand not only from gallerists and collectors but from companies for art, demands that they weren’t really there before. Take hotels. Before, high end hotels might have a print by a big name artist. They were just bought en masse. But now, you walk in and there’ll be something very recognisable, to show how trendy they are. The W hotels will usually have spot paintings or some other art ‘brand’ on display.

This is underpinning market values. This is something that I go on and on and on about: most people still haven’t entirely understood the extent to which the market for luxury goods and the market for art are all overlapping. This is a real danger for the art world—that the art will become overwhelmingly a luxury good. It is already in the case of certain artists. The art world becomes little more than an art market, for luxury tokens of status.

“ This is a real danger for the art world, that the art will become overwhelmingly a luxury good”

I mean, I’m happy if artists are rich. I don’t want them to starve. Let’s face it, artists at the bottom of this sort of inverted pyramid, in a way, when it comes to the art market. It’s their creativity that our whole industry is thriving on. We should never forget that. So, I’m delighted that artists make money. My worry with this sort of corporatization of the art world is that a lot of galleries are encouraging their artists to churn out the same sort of work repeatedly to supply insatiable collectors, their clients. And collectively to churn out very similar things.

How many Kusama pumpkins have you seen in your life? This seems to me to be blurring the lines. This is not genuine creativity anymore. This is mass production. So it’s great that artists should be able to make money, but I would hope that they’d retain the instincts that led them to become an artist in the first place.

Maybe the most flagrant blurring that springs to mind most recently, are the Jeff Koons Louis Vuitton bags

Oh, that was the pits. I have some pleasure in the belief that I don’t think they sold well at all. Have you ever seen anyone carrying one? Why do it? An artist like Koons doesn’t need the money. Is it a game of one-upmanship, as a response to Hirst’s marketplace antics?

Perhaps the brazenness and cynicism is itself an artistic gesture. I wonder if that might actually assure these artists their place in art history, because in a way the cynicism is so representative of our times.

We can debate that, but I think actually Hirst’s early work means his place is assured in art history. But there are so many examples of art as commerce. Takashi Murakami had that show at LACMA a few years back, which actually featured a shop in the exhibition space selling his handbags. It becomes a case of not ‘exit through the gift shop’, but ‘enter by the gift shop’. Do we need to put up with this sort of flagrant commercialization for artists to make money? Perhaps. But it’s a very different world from when I started in the art market, and is now perhaps at its most cynical, most ruthless.

So the market value of art is underpinned, even as the yield on other asset classes has collapsed?

Some works of art have outperformed many other investments by a very impressive amount, but by no means everything. People think that all art is going to go up in value indefinitely. It’s not. To make a good return on your Koons, you need to have already bought that Koons 10 years ago. And the value of those works 10 years from now is anybody’s guess.

In your book, you note this distinction between the primary and the secondary market. I understood the degree to which the secondary market is critical for the establishment of a certain price point. But then, it’s also reiteration and reinterpretation—it’s really what keeps the wheels spinning, isn’t it?

There is another art world that is under the radar, in which artists are making really good work and they’re selling them through smaller galleries. But the top end will continue to dominate the headlines. If I, as a journalist, went to an editor and said I intend to write this story about an unknown artist with no value in the marketplace, well, that’s a hard sell. But it does not mean we should stop looking for those undiscovered artists that remain true to the aesthetic and symbolic values of the work they produce. One day, their work may have art historic value, too.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Georgina Adam

Georgina Adam has spent more than thirty years writing about the art market and the arts in general. She was editor of the Art Market section of The Art Newspaper between 2000 and 2008, then editor-at-large. She wrote a weekly column for the Financial Times for eight years until 2016. In 2014 she published Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century. In addition to her specialisation in the art market, Adam is particularly interested in emerging cultural centres. She lectures at Sotheby's Institute in London and participates in panels about the market: she is a board member of Talking Galleries, patron of the Association of Women Art Dealers and member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA). Her book, Dark Side of the Boom: The Excesses Of The Art Market In The 21st Century, was published in 2018.