James Tarmy on Bloomberg tries to take a bite out of Felix Salmon by supposedly showing the persistence of big names at the top of the art market. And though there is a strong persistence over relatively short periods—read, a decade or two—Tarmy doesn’t address why he chose to focus only on living artists. The argument Felix Salmon makes is that art indices conveniently drop poor performers and gain strong replacements. Tarmy counters by saying, look at the number of artists who are still in the top ten a decade or two later.
But when you look at these lists from 1993 and 2003, you see that only four artists carry over (several drop out because they died.) It isn’t clear what the charts or lists really tell us because the comparisons still suffer from the selection bias Salmon was deriding.
(We know, however, that artists who achieve substantial value tend to retain that value over these periods but not necessarily over much longer periods:)
Hoping to quantify the chance of making money in the art market, I requested a report from Artnet that compiled the top 10 living artists in 1993 and 2003 and followed their sales through 2013, expecting to see a story of booms and busts. Surprisingly, almost all the artists at the top of the rankings maintained or expanded their market value.
Let’s go back about 10 years. It’s impossible to track all the ways that art is sold, but there are databases of auction sales that give us a rough idea of According to Artnet, the top 10 living artists of 2003, ranked by total auction sales, were:
Gerhard Richter: $32,127,829
Cy Twombly: $10,716,969
Jasper Johns: $8,625,096
Frank Stella: $8,392,128
Ed Ruscha: $7,335,674
Agnes Martin: $6,037,900
Tom Wesselmann: $5,880,799
David Hockney: $5,135,596
Zao Wou-Ki: $5,133,200
Damien Hirst: $5,084,114
And here’s what their growth looks like:
Total sales for every one of these artists grew. For eight out of 10, the increase was more than 200 percent in a decade. Most had not only seen an increase from 2003 but (with the glaring exception of Damien Hirst) have now exceeded their sales in 2008, the last art market peak.
Maybe 10 years is too short a period to see the bust. How about 20 years back? Here are the sales of the top 10 artists in 1993:
Roy Lichtenstein: $3,898,219
Fernando Botero: $3,624,240
Sam Francis: $3,186,429
Gerhard Richter: $3,041,133
David Hockney: $2,887,245
Willem de Kooning: $2,802,658
Frank Stella: $2,723,597
Cy Twombly: $2,652,662
Karel Appel: $2,567,574
Roberto Matta: $2,102,424
Not too shabby. Even if, like Karel Appel or Frank Stella, their prices haven’t gone gangbusters like Gerhard Richter’s — and no living artist has gone gangbusters quite like Gerhard Richter, whose auction sales have exceeded $100 million for six of the last seven years– everyone’s sales are solid. There’s certainly no evidence that their work is unsellable. Sales for four out of 10 went up more than 2,700 percent over that period, an astonishing number for any asset category.
In Art the Safest Bet is the Biggest Bet (Bloomberg)