You have to hand it to Felix Salmon, he’s the only pundit who can commission a chart that challenges his preconceived ideas about the art market, boldly admit that it likely shows a market that is far from being as overheated as in previous cycles and yet still conclude that it just means his prediction of an imminent bust is just slightly premature.
The chart above is the inflation-adjusted (to 2013 $) gross auction sales of 25 artists from the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary markets. Although the artists are fairly representative of highly valued and tradable names, there’s no scientific principle guiding the choices. Here’s Salmon’s comments:
The first thing I noted is that my priors were wrong: while Monet was big in 1989 and Warhol has had a more recent resurgence, in general you don’t see artists having particular peaks at particular times. I’m sure it would be possible to construct a dataset which does show that, but overall it’s impressive just how consistent the relative strength of various artists is, over time.The second thing to note is that although the market is looking extremely strong today, and had an equally big peak before the crisis in 2007, neither peak is actually higher than the last big bubble, in 1989-90. Indeed, if you look just at the artists who were selling strongly back then — the Modern and Impressionist crew — today’s sales figures are still significantly lower than they were. It’s only the recent surge in Contemporary sales and, specifically, in Warhol which is driving the overall figure towards the old record.
One other interesting comment to make from the chart is to wonder how overall spending on art has fared along the same period. This chart shows an art market vulnerable to external shocks. In a post below, Michael Plummer conjectures that art spending inversely correlates to return on capital offered by other financial instruments. The question is whether there is a secular trend in art spending that is independent of the financial markets.
Art market chart of the day, auction gross edition (Felix Salmon)