The Market Is Changing What Art Looks Like



On Friday at The Armory Show, a panel of art insiders gave their thoughts on the future of the market to a packed house. Moderator Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal was joined by auctioneer Simon de Pury, art advisor Todd Levin, collector Alain Servais, CEO of Athena Art Finance Andrea Danese, and gallerist Dominique Lévy of Lévy Gorvy.

Crow opened the discussion by prompting the audience members to do the near-impossible: truly use their imaginations.

“Close your eyes and try to conjure a color that you have never seen before,” said Crow, admitting that when asked to do the same thing she failed—only familiar colors came to mind. That reflex is “an apt metaphor for trying to understand the art market,” she said, before diving into a conversation that at times tried to conjure the future, but largely consisted of parsing more familiar recent market trends. That’s not to say there weren’t valiant attempts at prognostication, up to and including the use of props: A smiling Levin at one point pulled out a Magic 8-Ball when asked how he decides if a work of art is a good purchase.

Don’t Expect Data to Tell You What to Do

The art market will never behave the way some investors perhaps yearn for it to behave—that is, as a normal commodity market. “The bottom line is that art is a qualitative object,” Levin said. “Not a quantitative set of data points.” The art world, never one for rapid change and disruption, is nevertheless starting to integrate quantitative data, a primary example being online databases of auction prices. As more information becomes available online, buyers are seeking to complement their subjective taste with quantitative assessments. But available sales data is inherently limited and spotty, particularly for emerging artists with a minimal or nonexistent track record.

Even for more established artists, each work is different, Levin said. If a work has been damaged, or has been burned at auction before, there will always be a role for connoisseurship, knowledge, and personal experience when assessing a purchase. But De Pury acknowledged the desire, even for those who buy a work out of love, to not want to “throw this money out the window,” as he put it. “You feel vindicated if your passion translates into a good investment as well.”

Big Money is Changing the Market

Though the art market is still comparatively miniscule compared to other sectors of the economy (in 2016, it was roughly equal, in total value, to how much Americans spend on pet food, Servais said), it has expanded rapidly in recent years. Servais mentioned the fact that, in 2001, contemporary artists (those born after 1960) at auction netted $48 million annually. In 2007, that figure was $800 million. The size of the market “changed, completely, the rules of the game,” he said. “This is also what brought the finance guys,” Servais continued, putting it on the radar of those looking to financialize art—something he said is a major mistake.

Danese said the amount of wealth pouring into the market may push it to be a more efficient, data-driven area of commerce. Those investors—many of whom come from finance—will want clear information in order to make informed decisions, as they might with stocks or other investments. “There will have to be a dramatic change,” he said. Levin said this was also a function of macroeconomic factors, such as low interest rates, which were intended to jumpstart the economy. One effect they’ve had is to allow vast amounts of money to end up in the hands of a relatively small group of people, often the same people who buy art. “That money has to go somewhere,” Levin said.


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