Bendor Grosvenor has done some spade work (see the inflation-adjusted OM sales from Sotheby’s, above) to counter Scott Reyburn’s New York Times piece on the decline of the Old Master market. Grosvenor’s post is nuanced and should be read in full.
Here let’s just quote from Grosvenor’s summary of the argument interwoven with some astute asides:
To recap, the old retail model of many art dealers has finished, thanks to a number of factors including the transparency of prices (ie, the internet), the transformation of auction houses from wholesale to retail operations, and the decline of the traditional art fair. For those old fashioned dealers who can’t keep up with the new market it’s easier to say ‘nobody wants Old Masters’ than to admit failure (or for that matter to accept the greatly reduced margins we must all get used to in this more efficient age).
Nevertheless, there still seems to be no shortage of dealers prepared to make statements […] which feed into the narratives of observers like Scott in the New York Times. But quoting these old school dealers is a bit like, in the age of Amazon, talking only to high street retailers and concluding that nobody’s shopping anymore. People are shopping – just in a different way. The same goes for the Old Master market. For example, few seem to believe Sotheby’s impressive statistic that this year 46% of bidders in their Old Master sales were new to the field (and I’ve certainly not seen it quoted anywhere).