For as long as I’ve been writing and thinking about the art market – roughly a decade, with increasing intensity – there have been two seemingly contradictory phenomena driving its development. I keep wrestling with how to reconcile them, but I haven’t yet, and I hereby throw the paradox onto the Artworld Salon floor for discussion.
The first phenomenon is the surge in what I’ll call “cross-category collecting.” It’s rare to meet someone these days who only collects, say, vintage photography or Old Masters or German Expressionism. Most collectors also buy within several mediums. And within those mediums, people have started to cover much broader swathes of history. As The Economist noted last month: “To some extent, interest is spilling over from hot markets to [Old Masters]: newer buyers who might start out buying impressionist, modern, Russian or contemporary art are increasingly drawn to the big names among the Old Masters. (Many older paintings fit surprisingly easily within contemporary interiors.) But the peculiar confluence of factors that has propelled prices sky-high in other markets has not had as extreme an effect with the Old Masters.”
That brings us to our second trend, much noted among artworld veterans: the erosion of “relative value,” meaning the notion that an artist’s market should reflect their standing compared with all other artists, not just their peer group. Explaining the July round of auction sales in London, Daily Telegraph art-market specialist Colin Gleadell wrote: “Last week a good Bacon sold for more (at £21.6 million) than the two good Monets, and a flashy Damien Hirst ( £9.6 million) made almost as much as the much rarer Matisse….For fashion-conscious collectors, a Koons or a Hirst is now worth more than a Rodin and as much as Giacometti.”
And herein lies the paradox: If the collector bases for everything from Old Masters to the avant-garde are becoming more interwoven, shouldn’t more, not less relative-value thinking be reflected in the prices paid? Granted, I do know one contemporary-art collector who turned first to Morandi then toward Old Masters as the prices for contemporary paintings rocketed. But on balance it often seems to me that the various art-market segments are operating in wildly different ways – across even relatively minor increments in art history. So, clearly, though people are buying widely within different genres and generation, they’re not using the same metrics in judging what price they’ll pay for particular pieces. Thoughts?