Talking Prices

Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art

Olav Velthuis
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Talking Prices
    Book Description:

    How do dealers price contemporary art in a world where objective criteria seem absent? Talking Prices is the first book to examine this question from a sociological perspective. On the basis of a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including interviews with art dealers in New York and Amsterdam, Olav Velthuis shows how contemporary art galleries juggle the contradictory logics of art and economics. In doing so, they rely on a highly ritualized business repertoire. For instance, a sharp distinction between a gallery's museumlike front space and its businesslike back space safeguards the separation of art from commerce.

    Velthuis shows that prices, far from being abstract numbers, convey rich meanings to trading partners that extend well beyond the works of art. A high price may indicate not only the quality of a work but also the identity of collectors who bought it before the artist's reputation was established. Such meanings are far from unequivocal. For some, a high price may be a symbol of status; for others, it is a symbol of fraud.

    Whereas sociological thought has long viewed prices as reducing qualities to quantities, this pathbreaking and engagingly written book reveals the rich world behind these numerical values. Art dealers distinguish different types of prices and attach moral significance to them. Thus the price mechanism constitutes a symbolic system akin to language.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4940-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Graphs
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In the middle of one of the interviews which I conducted for this study, I decided to give up, desperate as I felt about the respondent’s reluctance to respond to my questionnaire. The art dealer, whose gallery annex print-making studio was located in the geographical periphery of the New York art market, refused to discuss what I was trying to understand: how art dealers set prices for contemporary works of art. This dealer had explained casually that the prints made in his studio were priced at roughly two-thirds the price of a work on canvas, and that revenues of sales...

  6. Chapter 1 The Architecture of the Art Market
    (pp. 21-52)

    From the inception of the modern art market in the first half of the nineteenth century, art dealers have defined their own identity as disinterested promoters and patrons rather than merchants and marketeers of art. At a time when retail markets developed and department stores arose in most Western European metropolises, art dealers steered away from commerce and consumerism. They were quick in refashioning their stores “ideologically,” as one historian writes, from “the equivalent of book dealers and antiquarians into rivals of museums” (Jensen 1994, p. 15). Moreover, art dealers have been wary of being identified with the economic elite...

  7. Chapter 2 Exchanging Meaning
    (pp. 53-76)

    During his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh hardly sold a single painting. Unable to support himself with his art, and unwilling to let sidelines keep him from his work, Van Gogh was fortunate to have a brother who supported him generously. From the early 1880s, when Van Gogh started to focus on his art fanatically, until his death in 1890, Theo van Gogh sent his brother amounts such as 50, 100, or 200 French francs once or twice a month. The character of these monetary transfers seems straightforward at first sight: they were gifts from Theo, who made a decent living...

  8. Chapter 3 Promoters versus Parasites
    (pp. 77-96)

    In December 1999 the German photographer Andreas Gursky had a solo show at the Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea, the foremost gallery area of New York City. At that time, Gursky ranked 38 in the top 100 list of the world’s most famous contemporary artists, published annually by the German business magazine Capital. A number of books had appeared on his oeuvre, museums all over the world were showing Gursky’s work, and the New York Museum of Modern Art had just decided to devote a solo show to the photographer in the spring of 2001. The career of Gursky’s New...

  9. Chapter 4 Determinants of Prices
    (pp. 97-115)

    The question of whether any regularities exist in prices for works of art has intrigued economists throughout the history of economic thought (De Marchi 1999). For different reasons, classical economists such as Adam Smith or David Ricardo, marginalist economists like W. Stanley Jevons, and the founder of modern economics, Alfred Marshall, agreed that no systematic explanation exists for the prices of rare and irreproducible goods like art. The upshot of Adam Smith’s analysis of paintings was that the cost of producing them could not account for their selling price. Because of their limited, fixed supply, “fancy and means” of buyers...

  10. Chapter 5 The Art of Pricing
    (pp. 116-131)

    In the year World War II started, R. L. Hall and C. J. Hitch, two Oxford economists, published a paper which examined “the way in which business men decide what price to charge for their products and what output to produce” (Hall and Hitch 1939, p. 12). Hall and Hitch collected the empirical data for the paper by means of interviews and questionnaires that were, even in those days, unconventional methods for economists. Their findings were no less controversial. The interviews indicated that the applicability of economic theory was limited, since entrepreneurs were unaware of the entities, functions, and data...

  11. Chapter 6 Stories of Prices
    (pp. 132-157)

    In this chapter I study how art dealers conceptualize, perceive, and make sense of prices in their everyday models of the market. These everyday economic models hardly resemble the abstract, impersonal, and mechanistic models that we find in academic, neoclassical economics. The dealer’s everyday economic discourse is by and large a moral discourse; it is riddled with stories, invokes concrete characters, and leans on dramatic narratives. When it comes to prices, everyday models of the market not only allow for quantitative differences in the monetary sum paid for a picture; they are also sensitive to qualitative differences in the type...

  12. Chapter 7 Symbolic Meanings of Prices
    (pp. 158-178)

    Pricing, as the previous chapters have suggested, is not just an economic, but also a signifying act: by distinguishing different types of prices or by identifying auction and gallery prices with different sets of values, art dealers turn pricing into a meaningful activity. In the present chapter I will elaborate on these meanings by interpreting the price mechanism as a symbolic system. The purpose of the chapter is to address two major anomalies of the price mechanism with the meaningful, symbolic, or expressive dimension of prices in mind. The first anomaly is the existence of a strong taboo on price...

  13. Chapter 8 Conclusion
    (pp. 179-190)

    Prices, I argued in this book, tell stories that are not only about money, value in exchange, or monetary measurement. They are about much more than the point where demand and supply meet. By listening to the way art dealers talk when they deal with prices and by observing what they do when they market art, I found that prices tell rich stories about the caring role which dealers want to enact, about the identity of collectors, about the status of artists, or the artistic value of art. Art dealers, artists, and collectors, who operate in a market where commerce...

  14. Appendix A Interview Questionnaire
    (pp. 191-193)
  15. Appendix B Description of Interview Sample
    (pp. 194-196)
  16. Appendix C Record Prices for Art
    (pp. 197-198)
  17. Appendix D Multilevel Analysis of Prices for Art
    (pp. 199-208)
  18. Notes
    (pp. 209-236)
  19. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-254)
  20. Index
    (pp. 255-264)
  21. Back Matter
    (pp. 265-270)