The 2010 Art Market Review – artmarkeblog.com

The 2010 Art Market Review – artmarkeblog.com

2010 has been one of the most confusing, unpredictable and unexplainable years for me as an art market analyst. So many of the trends, events and fads that emerged during 2010 did not appear to be caused by the sort of conditions, have the same effects, or follow the same path of logic that one would expect they would given the way things have panned out in past years. This leaves me with no doubt that the art market is evolving at such a rapid pace that there is little point trying to justify or explain the events of today using logic that is based on the progression and events of previous years. In fact, more of the art market events that took place during 2010 appeared to defy logic than ever before. I do, however, strongly believe that one of the reasons that it has become even more difficult to determine what is going on with the art market is that the art market (auction houses in particular) has become adept at making the situation appear much better than it really is. Whether it be by skewing figures or manipulating the way results are perceived – galleries, fairs and auction houses have become the plastic surgeons of the art world.

What has also made 2010 such a hard year to analyse was the contraction, and slow regeneration, of the market for the work of trendy emerging artists and recent works by top contemporary artists – both of which are usually the most global, visible and publicised sectors of the market. As the market moves towards the work of artists with a proven track record, collectors and investors have shifted their focus from the usually dominant and globally relevant contemporary art market to the work of artists from a wide of variety of styles, mediums and movements that cannot appear to have very little in common. This has resulted in a situation where there is not one dominant global trend that art market analysts such as myself can focus on, but a number of smaller and disjointed trends that make reading the market particularly difficult.

A few months ago I wrote a series of posts on what I believed was a move towards a more sentimental art market, which appears to be exactly the direction that the market has headed. General disillusionment with the contemporary art market has sent many collectors and investors take a more sentimental approach to fine art that is characterised by a focus on the safety of more established artists and the familiarity of artists that they can relate to. When art collectors or investors seek safety and familiarity they are most likely to gravitate towards works by artists from the era and culture that they have the greatest connection to. This would explain the large number of seemingly unrelated trends that emerged during 2010 many of which involved previously unfashionable styles and movements that are distinctly associated with a particular era or culture.

There is no doubt that the art market has recovered far quicker than many people thought possible. Again, the unexpectedly rapid recovery has thrown a spanner in the works when it comes to analysing the art market and trying to make sense of what is going on. Some journalists and analysts have gone as far as to admit that they cannot explain how a market that seemed to be at breaking point could make such a rapid recovery. To give you an idea of how quickly the art market has recovered, in March of this year (2010) Walter Robinson, editor of Artnet Magazine, said that “Art Market Watch has been on something of a hiatus during the last few months. What with the recession, reporting on auction results just isn’t as compelling as it was during the boom years”. Six weeks later a painting by Picasso become the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction when it fetched a staggering $106.5 million. A week after that an Andy Warhol self portrait sold at Sotheby’s for $32.6 million (more than twice the estimate) setting a new record for a Warhol self portrait at auction. Compelling enough?

When it comes to rationalising art market events there is much to be gained from knowing who has money to spend and how much they have to spend. The top end of the market is fuelled by super wealthy collectors whose level of wealth would not have been affected enough by the financial crisis to deter them from buying art. Therefore at the high end of the art market things have been pretty solid as is evident from the number of record auction prices set in 2010. The lower end of the market is fuelled by collectors who focus on edgy and trendy contemporary art by emerging and newly established artists, and who will usually have a high level of interest in the cultural and artistic side of fine art. Collectors at the lower end of the market are a very determined group who are always going to be around even if they appear a little less active at times. Things at the lower end have improved but have done so at a less than rapid pace which makes it difficult to judge where this sector of the market is heading. Without a doubt the sector of the art market that has suffered for the longest period of time due to the effects of the global financial crisis and the art market downturn is the middle market. The middle market includes lesser works by big name artists, and the more expensive (less justifiable) works by the trendy contemporary artists, which makes the middle market a sort of currently un-necessary compromise for the super rich, and a stretch too far for the modestly well off. Middle market works are, however, perfect for the financial advisor and hedge fund manager types who are more interested in art as a status symbol than the quality or art historical importance of the works they are buying. With the pay packets of hedge fund managers and financial advisors taking a massive hit due to the financial crisis, there is little interest in the middle market works. The super rich are still rich enough to not have to compromise and settle for middle market works and the modestly well off continue to fuel the lower end of the market.
My next post will be the top ten art market 2010 so stay tuned……..

**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

How to Avoid Dirty Art Auction Tricks – artmarketblog.com

How to Avoid Dirty Art Auction Tricks – artmarketblog.com

Having focused my last few posts on the issues surrounding the questionable practices of some art auction houses, I thought it important to let people know how they can avoid becoming a victim of dirty art auction tricks and tactics. The only real way to avoid becoming a victim of the art auction houses is to ask questions and to know which questions to ask.  Below is a list of questions, and the reasoning behind each question, that will ensure that you know exactly where you stand.

Seven questions every buyer should ask before bidding on a work of art:

1.       Does the auction house or anyone associated with the auction house have an ownership interest in the work of art I am thinking of purchasing?

(The reason you should ask this question is that if an auction house has an ownership interest in a work of art you should question whether this would have an effect on the way the auction house markets and presents the work of art in question – as well as the final price.  Auction houses are required to indicate in auction catalogues when they have an ownership interest in a work of art.)

2.       Is the auction house employee who is advising me on my purchases also representing the seller of the works they are advising me on?

(The reason you should ask this question is that it is not unknown for a specialist assigned to a particular client as an advisor to be representing the seller of the works they are advising the buyer to purchase.  If you are assigned an expert advisor by an auction house make sure they are not representing the seller of the particular works you are interested in.)

3.       Is there any doubt regarding the authenticity or provenance of the works of art I am interested in purchasing?

(The reason you need to ask this question is that auction houses are not always forthcoming with information regarding authenticity.  It is worth while making sure that you are getting what you are paying for.)

4.       Who has authenticated the works of art I am interested in purchasing, what qualifications do they have and what evidence was the authentication based on?

(The reason you need to ask this question is that auction houses have been known to justify the attribution they make using less than reliable information.)

5.       When were the works of art I am interested in purchasing last consigned to an auction and what was the result?

(The reason that you should ask this question is that auction houses are not always forthcoming with information regarding the consignment history of a work of art.  Auction houses have been known to sell the same work of art a number of times within a short period of time and not disclose this information to buyers.  It is important to know this information as it is likely there is reason that this has occurred.  It is also important to know this information because a work of art being passed in at auction can gain a stigma that can reduce the value.)

6.       Does the auction house allow the auctioneer to bid in his own sale?

(It should be obvious why one needs to ask this question, and yes, some auction houses to allow the auctioneer to bid on their own sale.)

7.       What is the condition of the works of art I am interested in purchasing and has a condition report been completed on each work?

(Auction houses are not always forthcoming with information regarding the condition of a work of art. It is generally expected that buyers will inspect a work of art themselves and will be aware of the condition of the work of art.  If you are not able to assess the condition of a work of art then hire an expert.)

**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



Halsey Minor Battles Sotheby’s Again – artmarketblog.com

Halsey Minor Battles Sotheby’s Again – artmarketblog.com

In my previous post I made reference to a court case involving CNet founder Halsey Minor who sued Sotheby’s in 2008 for allegedly failing to fully declare when they had an ownership stake in works that they sold him. Sotheby’s won the case and were awarded $6.64 million in outstanding debts. I mentioned that I was not aware of whether Minor had appealed the decision – well, just after publishing this post, I received an email from Halsey Minor to inform me that he had in fact made an appeal on the 24th of November 2010.  Minor will be hoping for another positive outcome like the one he received when he sued Christie’s in December 2008 for waiting too long to return some of his art after failing to sell the works on his behalf, and not returning the works when they said they would.  Minor won the case against Christie’s and was awarded $8.5 million which was the calculated drop in value that the works in question experienced while in Christie’s possession. According to Minor in an email sent to myself: “in 8 hours a jury found Christie’s guilty of Fraud, Theft and Failure to Honor a Contract and awarded me $8.5 million”.

As the appeal against Sotheby’s is still being processed I cannot comment on the case, but I would like to revisit the case Minor won against Christie’s.   The reasoning behind Christie’s holding the paintings by Richard Prince that Minor had consigned to Christie’s, but had failed to sell, was that Minor owed Christie’s $12 million at the time for works that he had purchased through the auction house.  Christie’s essentially held the Prince paintings to ransom in the hope that they would be able to recoup some of the money that Minor owed them.  Unfortunately for Christie’s, this was not an ethical means of encouraging Minor to pay them what he owed, and was what essentially won the case for Minor.  Christie’s also had a $1.5 million breach of contract counterclaim for when Minor declined to pay for work that he had purchased at auction which Christie’s won.  Mind you, the win for Christie’s was no-where near as significant as Minor’s win.

At the end of the day one expects a reputable and highly respected business like a major auction house to act ethically, morally and legally at all times regardless of how their clients act.  Although I would never condone illegal or immoral action by a client of an auction house, considering the number of clients that the large auction houses deal with it is almost inevitable that some of them will not play by the rules.  A major auction house, on the other hand, should never be seen to conduct their business in a way that breaches ethical, moral or legal boundaries – yet there is plenty of evidence that they have.  What is even more disturbing is that the auction houses are so powerful that even the most discrediting mud seems not to stick.

To be continued……..

**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

Do Art Auction Houses Camouflage Results? – artmarketblog.com

Do Art Auction Houses Camouflage Results? – artmarketblog.com

I received an email on December 2nd from one of Australia’s leading art auction houses, Menzies Art Brands, with the subject ‘Defamation Alleged’. The email read:

DEFAMATION ALLEGED

Menzies would like to bring to your attention this story on Page 10 of The Age newspaper today:

LEADING art auctioneer Rod Menzies has described as ”scurrilous” allegations made by Robert Le Tet and Rick Anderson about his business practices, in The Age yesterday.

Mr Menzies, an entrepreneur, cleaning business tycoon and owner of Menzies Art Brands, said he ”always honoured every deal” and was ”well known for carrying out every commitment and for his integrity”.

He said he observed the ”highest ethical standards” and denied suggestions to the contrary. He said in a statement that he had instructed his lawyers to start proceedings for defamation and damages claiming $38 million.

Enquiries
sydney@menziesartbrands.com

Before we continue, this is not the first time that allegations have been made regarding Menzies’ business practices. In 2008 complaints were made by other auction houses in Australia regarding Menzies’ alleged failure to adequately disclose details regarding guarantees provided by Menzies, as well as details regarding works being sold by Menzies that Menzies either owned or had a share in. Menzies denied the charges which were dropped in March of this year by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

This time around, Menzies is being accused of misleading reporting of art sales through his auction house. The accusations were aired in the Melbourne, Australia based newspaper ‘The Age’ where details of a transaction involving a painting by Brett Whiteley, one of Australia’s most famous and valuable artists, were questioned. According to The Age, the painting in question was reported by Menzies Art Brands as having been sold in Sydney on the 25th of March for A$1.44 million. Apparently, however, only two months later Mr. Menzies was offering the painting in question for sale privately through his company for A$1.25 million, which suggests that it wasn’t sold at all. It is then alleged that Mr. Menzies struck a deal with a collector, named as a Mr. Anderson, to swap the Whiteley painting, and another painting, for two paintings owned by the collector. The swap apparently took place in June of this year.

If this allegation wasn’t enough, ‘The Age’ alleges further issues regarding ownership of the Whiteley painting. Apparently a Melbourne financier launched a court case to retrieve the Whiteley painting, which he claims he owns because his company, Questco Pty Ltd. , loaned money to an art dealer to purchase the Whiteley painting – a dealer who is now having financial difficulties. The Melbourne financier apparently then asked Menzies to sell the painting through private treaty for A$1.25 million, but Menzies reneged on the deal a short time later. Menzies is being accused of then returning the painting to the dealer, not the financier, and purchasing it off the dealer for A$850,000. Mr. Menzies then put the painting up for sale in March of this year, which is where this story began. Menzies sought to retrieve the painting from Mr. Anderson whom he sold the painting to by private treaty and apparently even offered several other paintings in exchange which had also been reported as having been sold at auction. Mr. Anderson has so far declined to return the painting.

According to the article in ‘The Age’:

Mr Anderson claimed Mr Menzies has been ”ramping” up the art auction market, and he said it was in the public interest to know how the prominent auctioneer operated: ”He reported the Whiteley painting as sold and then he offered it to me for $200,000 less than what it was supposedly sold for at auction,”.

No charges have been laid against Mr. Menzies or his company and, as you can see from the email I was sent, Mr. Menzies strongly denies the allegations made against him and his company. The question of who is telling the truth will presumably come to light if the defamation case goes ahead.

The reason that I have alerted you to this case is that I have been on a bit of an art auction house crusade of late in an attempt to inform the public about what goes on behind the scenes and hopefully encourage the art auction houses to be more transparent and ethical with their dealings. With transparency being one of the biggest issues, I thought it was important to highlight this case even though none of the allegations have been confirmed as being true.  I will be doing a series on this issue as there are lots of allegations to cover.

**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

Fixing the Contemporary Art Auction Crisis Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

Fixing the Contemporary Art Auction Crisis Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

In my last post I detailed two definitions of contemporary art from two different contemporary art museums that challenge the rather inadequate and misleading definition of contemporary art that many auction houses seem to abide by.  Even though I had found two good museum definitions of contemporary art, I continued my search to see what else I could find.  And I am glad I did continue searching because I came across a particularly interesting definition of contemporary art provided by the Tate Museum.  According to the Tate, contemporary art is a:

“Term loosely used to denote art of the present day and of the relatively recent past, of an innovatory or avant-garde nature. In relation to contemporary art museums, the date of origin for the term contemporary art varies. The Institute of Contemporary Art in London, founded in 1947, champions art from that year onwards. Whereas The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York chooses the later date of 1977. In the 1980s, Tate planned a Museum of Contemporary Art in which contemporary art was defined as art of the past ten years on a rolling basis”.

This definition is somewhat misleading because it lists the date range of two Contemporary art museums, the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and the The New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, as though these museums define contemporary art by these date ranges.  What I found was that the beginning of the date range of works in the collections of both these museums is in fact the year that each museum was founded.  So, the Museum is not defining contemporary art as work produced from the year each museum was founded, but is in fact just maintaining a collection that is partly historical and archival even though their focus is on work that is new and experimental.  What interested me most about the Tate definition of Contemporary art is the revelation that “In the 1980s, Tate planned a Museum of Contemporary Art in which contemporary art was defined as art of the past ten years on a rolling basis”.  I personally think that this definition of contemporary art is the most accurate and sensible that I have come across and is the definition of contemporary art that the art auction houses should be abiding by.  Continuing with the museum definition theme, I think that the Getty museum provides one of the most blunt and profound definitions of contemporary art on their website which states that “Strictly speaking, the term “contemporary art” refers to art made and produced by artists living today”.  Here, Here !!!.

So, what does this mean for the art market, I hear you ask.  Well, let’s take a look at the results of a recent contemporary art auction held by an auction house that I will not be naming.  The reason I am not going to name the auction house is that there is not just one auction house on which one can lay total blame for this problem.  I also have great respect for the major auction houses regardless of whether or not there are issues relating to the classification and categorisation of works of art.  Looking at the top ten prices paid for this auction, which was promoted as a contemporary art auction, there were eight artists whose work was included in this top ten. The eight artists were Andy Warhol, Mark Rothko, Roy Lichtenstein, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Out of those eight artists, seven are dead – the only surviving artist out of the eight being Gerhard Richter.  Even more interesting are the dates that each of the top ten works were created:  1962, 1955, 1962, 1985, 1966, 1992, 1969, 1962, 1986 and 1987.  Six of the works were created prior to 1970, three prior to 1990 and only one after 1990.  The most recent work in the top ten was a work by Gerhard Richter, the only living artist in the top ten, which was created in 1992.  Of all the works in the top ten, the Richter would be the only one that I would consider referring to as a work of contemporary art – only at a stretch, mind you.

Although the top ten prices paid were dominated by the work of deceased artists, I must acknowledge that the auction did include works by true living contemporary practising artists.  Unfortunately the auction house uses the ridiculous misnomer ‘recent contemporary artists’ when referring to the work of the true contemporary artists.  By definition, something that is ‘contemporary’ is recent so to make reference to ‘recent contemporary artists’ is just plain wrong.  The fact that this term has to be used at all is, in my opinion, evidence enough that there is something amiss with the way some auction houses are cataloguing, categorising and presenting the works of art that they are selling.  If you don’t think that this is a big problem in the scheme of things then I respect that and even admit that you may be right.  But for me, this is the straw the broke the camel’s back; just another seemingly small problem that when added to the other seemingly small problems equal a rather big problem.  I do have some plans to combat all these small problems but you will have to wait to find out what my plans are.

image: ‘The Art Crisis’ by Robert The

**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

Portraits as Art Market Currency pt. 3 – artmarketblog.com

Portraits as Art Market Currency pt. 3 – artmarketblog.com

The last installment of “Portraits as Art Market Currency” received an interesting comment from a reader who said: “Is that why we have portraits on our banknotes? hehe! Maybe that’s what they thought when they designed them….”. All jokes aside, this comment is actually a good introduction to the concept of the portrait as a historical document – a concept that I want to explore with this post. Although we tend to think of paper money as merely a means of acquiring goods, the coins and notes that we use everyday are in fact historical documents of great value. The fact that there is such a vibrant and growing market in old and obsolete coins and notes confirms the fact that we place a considerable level of value on the historical value of money. I constantly hear of coins and currency notes being sold for astronomical amounts of money, thousands of times beyond their face value, because of their rarity and historical significance. There is no doubt in my mind that bank currency often has an intrinsic historical value and that most forms of bank currency could be considered to be historical documents in themselves. Considering that one of the most recognisable and common features of paper money is a portrait of some sort, it would be reasonable to assume that those portraits which appear on notes and coins also have a significantly high level of historical value. And if you think that people don’t care what the portraits on money look like then think again. When Australia changed over to decimal currency in 1966 a new portrait of Queen Elizabeth appeared on the one dollar bill . The new decimal currency bills were designed by Gordon Andrews who was widely criticised for portraying the Queen with what some people thought was a look of unhappiness, and for giving the Queen what some people saw as a slight scowl. Mr. Andrews defended the portrait by pointing out that “if you have someone grinning at you on a bank note, which you have to look at over and over again, you get to hate the sight of it”. A fair point I think. Another example of the extent to which the portraits on paper money are assigned value is a newspaper article from 1962 about counterfeit currency in which a US Secret Service Chief advised people to look at the portrait. According to Chief James J. Rowley “Counterfeit currency has a lifeless portrait, the fine cross-lines are not clear or distinct”. Sounds more like the musings of an art critic than a secret service agency.

Some may disagree with the concept of historical value as a type of intrinsic value but I think there is more than enough proof to suggest that the historical value that many portraits have can be considered to be intrinsic. The sort of value I am talking about is the value of what a portrait can tell us about various areas of history, not the value we place on a portrait because of the positive opinion we have for the person depicted – an opinion that could change depending on the information we have about that person. The US National Archives conducted an investigation into the Intrinsic Value In Archival Material in 1982 which came up with some useful definitions and information that is relevant to this post. According to the ‘Report of the Committee on Intrinsic Value’ it was determined that “Intrinsic value is the archival term that is applied to permanently valuable records that have qualities and characteristics that make the records in their original physical form the only archivally acceptable form for preservation. Although all records in their original physical form have qualities and characteristics that would not be preserved in copies, records with intrinsic value have them to such a significant degree that the originals must be saved.The qualities or characteristics that determine intrinsic value may be physical or intellectual; that is, they may relate to the physical base of the record and the means by which information is recorded on it or they may relate to the information contained in the record.” It is also worth noting that the committee determined that one of the characteristics of records with intrinsic value is “General and substantial public interest because of direct association with famous or historically significant people, places, things, issues, or events”. The findings of this committee confirm that historical documents can have intrinsic value.

One of the best sources of evidence that supports the idea that a portrait can have value as a historical document is the fact that the National Library of Australia has Guidelines for the acquisition of portraits that are acquired to “provide a documentary record of Australian life and achievement”. According to the guidelines “The National Library collects portraits of Australians of national significance as well as portraits of individuals and groups who are not necessarily known but who are representative of different occupations or of various social, racial or cultural aspects of Australian life. Portraits are acquired to provide a documentary record of Australian life and achievement”. Even more revealing is one of the selection criteria that the library uses to determine whether a portrait is worth acquiring. The following is one of the selection criteria:

2.2.2 The documentary value of the portrait

Portraits acquired must provide an authentic record of the physical appearance of the subject. In addition, some suggestion of the field of achievement of the subject is looked for in background details, dress or any objects shown in the portrait.

The extent to which the portrait offers insights into the personality and character of the sitter, and the originality of the portrayal, are also considered important. For some individuals an original portrait as well as a photographic portrait may be acquired if it is considered that they provide differing insights. However, for an original portrait to be preferred to a photographic portrait when both are available, the original work should display this quality to a much greater degree (see 2.2.1).

In the case of original works, a portrait painted from life is preferred to one painted from a photograph, as being more likely to provide the added dimension of character insight. The relationship of the artist to the sitter may also be of relevance here.
From a really young age, we learn to read faces. They have a language and can articulate themselves with nuance in a way that nothing else in the world around us can quite reach. The way an artist paints a face is highly distinctive, and portraiture tells you far more about the artist than it does about the subject. Get to know the vernacular of one artist’s face compared to another, and you can use that knowledge to hunt down other examples.

Non-representational works of subjects are not collected as generally these do not convey documentary information about the subject’s appearance.

Cartoons that offer insights to personality and character will be considered for acquisition.

As far as I can see the value that can be placed on portraits because of their status as historical documents is the sort of future proof intrinsic value that will always remain with the portrait and cannot be disassociated from the portrait.  It is this sort of intrinsic value that makes the portrait a good candidate for use as currency – a concept that I will continue to explore.

To be continued……………….

**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

Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

Portraits as Art Market Currency Pt. 2 – artmarketblog.com

Welcome to part 2 of my series on the concept of portraits as an art market currency.  Before I continue, I would like to explain exactly what I mean by an art market currency for those that are perhaps slightly perplexed by the concept. Obviously, fine art is never going to replace paper money as the dominant form of currency.   My research focuses less on the actual use of currency as a medium of exchange, and more on the concept of currency as an indicator and a benchmark.  It is important to understand that my concept of an art market currency is merely a theoretical concept – the analysis of which I believe can provide valuable information and knowledge for investors and collectors.

In the currency world, the US dollar is used as a benchmark (world reserve currency) for all other currencies because of the political and military strength of the US, as well as the very strong gold reserves that the US held when the Bretton Woods system was introduced after World War II. Although the art market doesn’t have an official genre, period or style that acts as a benchmark for the rest of the market, the popularity and visibility of the contemporary art market means that it tends to be used as a de-facto barometer for the state of the art market.  Unfortunately, the contemporary sector of the art market would have to be the worst sector to use as an indicator for the health of the entire art market.  As we all know, the contemporary sector of the art market is a highly volatile and unstable market that is constantly at the mercy of cultural and social trends – and is often assigned a value that has very little to do with the actual art object.  So, if the contemporary art market is not a suitable indicator of the status of the art market, is there a category of art that is?  This is just one of the questions that I hope to answer with this series of posts.

Let me throw a scenario your way that will hopefully help make the reasoning behind the concept of portraits as an art market currency much clearer.  If I were to give someone who knew nothing about art 100 works of art consisting of: 20 cubist paintings, 20 conceptual  works, 20 figurative landscape paintings, 20 religious icons and 20 figurative portrait paintings – and asked that person to look at each category separately and rank the works in each category according to how much they thought each work was worth based purely on the physical characteristics of the art object (without knowing anything about who the artist is, when they were painted, who the portraits are of, the location of the landscapes etc.) – which category do you think they would find the easiest to rank?  I think that conceptual art would be the hardest, because with conceptual art the main component of the work is the concept, not the art object.   Because abstract art is so nonrepresentational, it is extremely difficult to assess unless the purpose or motivation of the artist is known, which rules out the cubist paintings as the easiest to rank.   Religious icons could be compared to portraits – however, the symbolic nature of religious icons means that their value is closely tied to the cultural, religious, social and art historical context in which they were created, which makes valuing such works difficult for experts, and virtually impossible for anyone who does not have a thorough knowledge of the genre.  Figurative landscape paintings would seem like a good candidate for the most easy to rank because of the representational nature of such works, the general familiarity people have with the way nature should be depicted, and also because the skill and talent of the artist are so easy to determine from the way the picture is presented.  What lets the figurative landscape paintings down is the lack of consistency in terms of setting, location, season, angle etc. which means making a comparison between two landscape paintings is likely to be very difficult.  Finally, we come to portraiture.  There are several factors that make the physical characteristics of portraits so easy to compare and rank, including:

– the consistency of the subject (human face)

– the universal nature of the face

– the common goal of figurative portrait painters (to accurately depict the human face)

– the ease with which virtually anyone can determine how skilled or talented the artist is at accurately depicting the human face

In my opinion the physical characteristics of figurative portraiture are the most comparable and easily ranked of all the genres and types of fine art.  I cannot think of another genre or type of fine art that has such consistent characteristics and is so universally decipherable.  The fact that the physical characteristics of figurative portraits are so comparable across the whole genre, and so easy to rank, means that they are also easier to value when compared to other genres.  It is the characteristics of figurative portraiture that I have discussed above which give figurative portraiture an edge over other genres when it comes to the concept of fine art as currency.

Stay tuned for part 3……….

**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