Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 1 – artmarketblog.com

Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 1 – artmarketblog.com

The popularity of figurative art took a real dive post WWII when abstraction began to really hold take, which meant that portraiture, one of the purest forms of figurative art, suffered considerably along with the other forms of representational art.  More recently, conceptual art captured the imagination of the art world and, like the abstract movement, overshadowed the less glitzy world of the classical and the traditional.  The contraction of the art market that took hold in 2008 – primarily a result of the severely overheated market for contemporary art –  did, however, cause the art market to re-evaluate the value it placed on contemporary art as well question the reasoning behind the justification of the phenomenal prices being paid for contemporary art. Because the value of much of the contemporary art being produced is dependent upon the culture of the market in which the art is being sold, any major changes to the dynamic of that market are bound to have a severe effect on the value people put on contemporary art.  As is always the case, when the latest short term fashion driven trend begins to crumble, people turn to the safety and assurance of the traditional and the classical.  It is during or after major art market corrections that the difference between a short term fad and a particular style or movement temporarily going out of fashion becomes clear.  By definition, a fad is a temporary state of affairs that, once the novelty fades, is gone forever.  A considerable percentage of the contemporary art that enters the market will only retain the value it is given for as long as the fad it is associated with lasts.  Because the fads that drive the contemporary art market rarely get the sort of scholarly attention, cultural patronage or art historical recognition that ensure longevity of an artist and their work, many contemporary artists fail to survive the demise of a trend or the onset of an art market contraction.  Although portraiture fell out of fashion, as it has done on several occasions, the fact that there is so much scholarly, academic and art historical support for the genre means that there will always be a market for portraits – a market that can only continue to get stronger each time the genre comes back into fashion.

Philip Mould is a world renowned expert on historical British portraiture and, as well as regular appearances on the British version of Antiques Roadshow, has written several books that regale the reader with thrilling tales of the serial sleuther’s many quests to unearth the true identity of an artist or their subject.  Although he started dealing in portraits because they were cheap, Mould developed an infectious passion for British portraiture that even made me want to start dealing in portraits.  The great poet Charles Baudelaire once said that “A good portrait always appears to me like a dramatized biography, or rather like the natural drama inherent in every man” – a statement that I totally agree with.  Although the classical portrait may have a certain stigma attached to it, and may seem to many to be a rather boring category of art – once one begins to discover the biographical, socio-historical and cultural associations that a portrait is likely to have, the portrait can quickly go from being a humble representational picture to an extremely interesting and important historical document that can reveal fascinating historical, cultural and social information.  Uncovering the often hidden delights of a portrait is usually a time consuming project but is also an extremely rewarding and fascinating journey which more people are beginning to see the benefits of.  Uncovering the secrets of a portrait can not only be an exciting and educational experience, it can also be financially rewarding in cases where the information uncovered adds historical, cultural or provenencial value to the portrait in question.

Portraits have featured heavily in many of the most successful art auctions that have taken place over the last few months.  Asa an example of what I am talking about, check out the top results (from mutualart.com) of the July 14th Deweatt-Neate Old Masters and 19th Century Pictures auction.

Top lots sold above high estimate

Old Masters & 19th Century Pictures

Jul 14, 2010 10:00 AM
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The flower girl
By Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
3,840 GBP
Green Arrow380% above estimate
Angelica Kauffmann, Immortality: A Nymph Presiding in the Temple of Immortality
By Angelica Kauffmann
79,200 GBP
Green Arrow340% above estimate
British School, 18th Century, Portrait of a lady Half length seated
By British School, 18th Century
2,160 GBP
Green Arrow209% above estimate
Titian, Head study of a man (fragment)
By Titian
1,560 GBP
Green Arrow160% above estimate

Stay tuned for part 2 for a detailed explanation of the reasoning behind my portraits as art market currency theory.

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications

3 Responses

  1. Great blog, I enjoyed it.

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