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Holy Hieronymus Bosch: Art to the Barricades?

Research & Commentary
August 18, 2011


Soaring fortunes are distorting how the art world operates, says a new industry study, and undermining the professionalism of the men and women in it.

Want to get some cold stares at an art world cocktail party? Just jiggle the ice in your glass and offhandedly suggest that America’s rich ought to pay more in taxes. You might as well be confusing a da Vinci with a velvet Elvis.

The art world may well be humanity’s most natural constituency — beyond the rich themselves — for “trickle-down” economics. Only the affluent, after all, buy fine art. The more money in affluent pockets, ergo, the better off everyone in art.

Or so most everybody in the art world seems to believe. What’s good for the rich, the industry assumes, must also be good for all of art.

This conventional wisdom may need some updating. The trade association for art dealers worldwide — originally known as the Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvre d’Art, or CINOA for short — has just released a 75th-anniversary study that details trickle-down’s dark side.

Fortunes for the world’s rich, notes study author Clare McAndrew, may be soaring. But the men and women who deal art are sinking. They’re hurting financially in their wallets — and professionally in their hearts.

About 375,000 people around the world currently make their living selling artwork and fine antiques. They “average” about $87,000 in annual earnings. “In reality,” McAndrew points out, most dealers make do with considerably less — since only 5,000 dealers worldwide rack up half the sales dealers record.

And all dealers, those top 5,000 included, now face enormous competition from giant global corporate auction houses, most notably Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Auction houses used to serve as wholesalers to the trade. Now they compete at the retail level.

Wealth in the art world, in short, is concentrating as fiercely as wealth in the overall economy. And this concentration, inside art galleries and out, has altered how art dealers go about their daily work.

Dealers used to pride themselves in their understanding and knowledge of art. They took great professional pride in cultivating the tastes of their clients. Their clients, in turn, appreciated their guidance.[pullquote]Wealth in the art world, in short, is concentrating as fiercely as wealth in the overall economy.[/pullquote]

Many art buyers today, Clare McAndrew explains, still do collect “art for its own sake.” But “many more” come to the art market as investors pure and simple. They concern themselves only “with how art can work for them financially.”

“Motivations have shifted over time,” McAndrew writes, “to considerations of returns, risk, and portfolio balance.”

Artists, in effect, now paint for plutocrats. The super rich bid up the cost of artwork. The “upper middle class” — the art-loving bread-and-butter, historically, for the vast majority of art dealers — cannot keep pace.

McAndrew’s study, released just last month, does seem to be making an impact.

“Those who think that the policies consolidating the power of the super rich can only benefit the art world as a whole,” notes art editor Ben Davis in one rave review, might do well to “think again.”

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