Art Prices & Hard Times

February 1, 2012

What establishes the value of artwork, especially the ones that demand incredibly high prices, and how many artists are making “the big bucks?” These questions intrigue me, so I found press reports about some recent events in the art market of serious interest – one about Andy Warhol and the other about Andreas Gursky.

First, Andy Warhol, but let’s start at the beginning…. It was in 1962 that the then unknown artist had his first exhibition in the Fergus Gallery in Los Angeles. The show consisted of one hundred images of soup cans, each a different flavour. Five of them sold but the gallery owner bought them back in order to keep the collection together – a wise move considering that in 1996 he sold the collection to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for $15 million.

A master of media and market manipulation, an astute observer and prescient about social trends, Warhol has achieved the seemingly impossible – he has become one of the most valuable artists in history, and all the while, thumbing his nose at the market he was mastering. (His studio was called The Factory after all, and he is the man who said: “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”)

In 1998, his twelve-foot wide work, Eight Elvises, sold for over $100 million (sold by Italian collector Annibale Berlingieri to a private collector in a sale brokered by Philippe Ségalot, a French art consultant) and Green Car Crash 1963 sold at auction for $71.7 million. It was the highest price paid at auction for a Warhol. (By comparison, Titan’s A Sacra Conversatzioni, painted around 1560 and considered an important work by one of the world’s greatest painters, just recently sold at auction for $16.9 million, setting a record high price of one of Titian’s works.)

In 2010, works by Andy Warhol grossed $313 million and accounted for 17% of all sales of contemporary art at auction that year. Also in that year, the gross sales of Warhol works were 229% higher than they were in 2009. Between 1985 and 2010, the average prices of Warhol works at auction increased by 3,400%. How’s your portfolio doing?

As for Andreas Guersky, he too is setting records. In November of 2011, his digitally altered photograph, Rhine II, sold at auction for $4.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a photograph. This sale has sparked some interesting responses from knowledgeable and experienced voices in the art auction and photography communities. While some exalt the sale as evidence of the increasing respect for photography, others see it as evidence of the arbitrary and capricious nature of art evaluation.

For the scores of artists making millions, there are millions of artists earning only scores. In The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, author Don Thompson conjectures that there are 800,000 represented artists living in New York and London; approximately half of them living in each city. He believes that roughly 75 of them are “superstar” artists earning seven figures or more annually, and that below them there are an astonishingly small number of artists – maybe 300 – who are making six figures or more annually. These 300 are artists who are doing very well and don’t have to teach or do other work in order to get by. Below them, Thompson says, there are about 5,000 artists he describes as having some sort of profile with gallery representation, but who teach or do some other type of work to augment their income, and that leaves an astonishing 799,625 artists in these two cities struggling to get by just as many local contemporary artists are doing.

While some say Rome is burning, these extraordinary prices for works of contemporary art are like fiddle music. While the global economy devalues many commodities that investors favour, contemporary art has never been more valuable. And when I read about the Occupy movement and its figures of 1% versus the 99%, it seems to me our visual art world parallels the imbalance of their concern when we look at how many artists earn big money and who they are. A fractional percentage of contemporary artists do extremely well financially, and most of them are men.

The good news contained in the shocking statistics about these recent sales is that what is good for these enormously wealthy artists is good for all artists – their success says that art has real, tangible value. Prices like these validate your own prices if they seem high to some, or they may make your modest prices seem like a bargain to those who are attracted to your work. It is good to know this kind of information about the profession in which you work.

The Arts Health Network Canada and its first provincial chapter, Arts Health Network Canada-BC, is a new resource for Canadian artists! The aim of the organization is to connect arts and health practitioners in Canada with each other, researchers, decision-makers, and with members of the public who want to benefit from arts and health programs. Their website is intended as one step towards helping facilitate those connections, an all-inclusive hub where arts and health users and the public can learn and contribute to knowledge about the ever-growing field of arts and health in Canada.

Their website hosts information on arts and health, including: a beginning list of resources ranging from books, film, and websites to reports, magazines, and academic journal articles; new and ongoing initiatives taking place across Canada; national and international research projects; upcoming and ongoing events, classes, and workshops; and an arts and health news feed.

The organization intends to make the website as comprehensive and informative as possible about arts and health activities taking place across Canada. To do so, they want input! To contribute information about arts and health related events, initiatives, and/or resources, please send an email to them at