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Art Luxury: Trends in the Booming Art Market

Updated: Jan 16, 2019

By Alessandro Rubin

The art market has been growing exponentially since the 1980s, with a notable increase in the number of transactions concerning items valued over $1 million. About one year ago, in November 2017, Christie’s secured a historic record with the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi; the oil-on-panel painting reached a staggering price of about $450 million, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold. One year later, David Hockney’s Pool with Two Figures gathered the highest hammer price for a living artist with $90.3 million. Just before, Sotheby’s had broken the record for a living female artist, when Jenny Saville’s Propped was adjudicated in London for $12.4 million. These figures are even more surprising when considering their close proximity, which makes one wonder whether they will soon be followed by other even bigger achievements.

David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) fetched $90.3 million at Christie’s last November

Looking at the most successful art sales in recent years, Christie’s and Sotheby’s dominate the field, confirming the peculiar duopoly that currently characterises the secondary market. One may also find specialised agents, such as Phillips, which is gathering outstanding results in the trade of modern and contemporary art, as well as strong regional players such as Guardian in China or Finarte in Italy. Nonetheless, the two top competitors have managed to craft an aura of prestige around their salesrooms. As works of art are being seen more and more as financial assets, a sale by either Christie’s or Sotheby’s determines a seal of quality on the work and validates the hammer price beyond question, even when this might be inflated by the bidders’ frantic competition.

A moment of the sale session that crowned Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi the most expensive painting ever sold at auction

The growing value of the art market is determining a development of the art world towards a more service-based system, as already predicted by the critic Thomas Crow in the 1990s (Modern Art in the Common Culture). Online services such as Artsy and Invaluable are changing the way we approach and discover new artists, succeeding in bringing an object-obsessed industry into the digital world. The status of works of art as material commodities is changing too. See for the example Feral Horses, a young online trading platform that allows its users to purchase art in the form of shares. While the company is still in its early stages, it is managing to question the notion of art as a fixed and hardly movable resource, putting forward different forms of collecting and ownership.

A picture from Art Basel Miami Beach (2018), one of the most important contemporary-art events of the year

The art market has become one of the most active sectors of the luxury goods industry. Despite the relatively traditional outlook of this field, its growing value is changing internal dynamics, leading to the creation of new display and trade formats. From the rise of art fairs to the creation of new digital platforms to view and exchange art, the public’s exposure to creative content is rapidly increasing, stimulating the appetite of collectors and curious buyers alike. In June, an auctioneer from Christie’s told me that he is expecting to see a $1 billion sale sooner or later in his life. Given the startling growth witnessed in recent years, this is hardly a foolish prediction.

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