The Economist latches on to—and makes a chart from—the work of one of the original art price scholars, William Goetzmann, who has a new paper on the top prices paid for paintings over time. One thing you’ll notice about the chart is that record prices come in clusters going back to the turn of the 19th Century. The clusters are just getting closer together in time these days.
The chart also shows the transition from UK and Eurpean buyers to Americans to Japanese and back to Americans of late. Also, for all of the heavy breathing about art prices, the Economist reminds us that the world’s most expensive painting (when prices are adjusted for inflation) remains one bought nearly a quarter of a century ago:
William Goetzmann, Elena Mamonova and Christophe Spaenjers point out that theirs is merely “a” list of records, as opposed to “the” definitive list. It uses nominal prices that have not been adjusted for inflation, and denominates in sterling on the grounds that the global art market was based in Britain for a long time. (If you do adjust for inflation, Van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr Gachet” becomes the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, having fetched the equivalent of £97m in 2013 prices when it was sold in 1990.) Only the highest price attained at any given auction has been considered, so records that might have been broken earlier at the same event are ignored. And the authors accept that they may have missed some early record-breakers owing to the incompleteness of the historical data.
Daily chart: Study of Money (The Economist)
The Economics of Aesthetics and Three Centuries of Art Price Records, Goetzmann, Mamonova & Spaenjers: SSRN-id2478687 (downloadable pdf)