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Saturday, October 26, 2013


Who’s the Best-Selling Young Artist? You Don’t Get to Know

“The whole point of the art market, especially with young artists, is to militate against the existence of an open market.”

Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

When it comes to art, even “Is it for sale?” can have several answers.
If ever there was a moment to grasp how the art market works, this is it.
With art sales regularly setting new price records, Bloomberg Rankings has released lists of the top-selling young artists–one covering those born since 1970 and a second limited to those born since 1980. Banksy tops the first list; with the British artist’s New York invasion in the news, it’s interesting to see the nearly $40 million his works have gotten at auction. But it’s the numbers on the younger-artists list that really caught TMN‘s attention.

In a word, they are low. If you’ve been following any of the reporting on the recent mania in the art market, they’ll seem startlingly, head-scratchingly low.
Check out the chart below (scroll down if you don’t see it). To break into the top 10 born-since-1980 list, an artist needs only a million dollars in sales, or just over $300,000 for the top 20. That’s not just last year. That’s over the course of a whole career. In a list of artists born since 1980, the careers are still young, but there are plenty of artists that age who’ve sold a lot more than that. Walk through New York’s Chelsea gallery district on any fall weekend and you’ll find at least a couple of young artists whose dealers charge more than that for a single work.

Here’s where it starts to get weird. The numbers you’re looking at, based on data from Artnet, reflect not work sold by the artist, but works that collectors bought from galleries and resold at auction.  As you might expect, the numbers rise dramatically as artists get older and their work hits the auction houses in increasing numbers. To break into the “post-1970″ list would take $6 million in sales. If you were to look at artists born since, say, 1940 or 1950, the numbers would be vastly higher.
That’s what makes the list of young artists so interesting. You may conclude from the low numbers that collectors aren’t interested in their work. Utterly untrue. The list actually says less about the value of the work than about the success of the galleries at keeping it off the open market until artists are well into the later stages of their working lives.

To anyone who isn’t familiar with how the art market works, that last part has to sound bizarre. But it’s key to how art is sold, at least in the U.S. and Europe. Listen to Marion Maneker, publisher of Art Market Monitor and founder of the Art Compliance Company:
“The basic tenet of the gallery system is that the auction market is antithetical to the management of an artist’s career,” says Maneker. “A good dealer is a market maker and prefers to manage the market privately.”

So the question is: Who’s not on that list? Hot artists are sold by galleries that will move heaven and earth to avoid having works go to auction and risk (a) their selling for less than they would in the gallery or (b) their selling for a lot more, and setting a price for future works that an artist won’t match later. The right to purchase work is itself carefully controlled. Works by artists in high demand are parceled out to regular clients, on the understanding that they won’t be sold quickly. That’s why most of the younger artists making a stir in the gallery world now (one example: Lucien Smith) don’t make it into these rankings. As Maneker explains, the gallery’s job “is to get works that will be donated to museums that will ratify the artists’ reputations, not to have collectors resell works at auction for a quick profit.”

And then he says the single most important thing you need to understand about this world: “The whole point of the art market, especially with young artists, is to militate against the existence of an open market.”

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