Once again, Do Your Homework.
If you see something you’re interested in, go to ArtNet or Adec - both are online databases which track the sales and pricing of artwork sold at auction. Look up works by the same artist, the same size, the same subject, at the same point in their career as the works in which you are interested. Although Artnet and Adec are the best online sources, both charge a monthly access fee. I just found another source, however, and its free! It is icollector – this site, however, does not have the most up-to-date auction prices and does not have many illustrations. Remember, the market value of a certain piece of art often varies depending on the subject matter as well as the period of the artist’s career in which the work was done. You’ll often find that still lives by a famous artist will sell for a lower price than her landscapes, or vice-versa.
Always check condition. Works sold at auction may be by a famous artist, but even Sotheby’s and Christie’s will not disclose a condition problem or the fact that a piece has been restored.
Many auction companies that sell “antique” furniture also try to pass off artwork by artists such as Erte or Miro as originals when, in fact, they are not. Many of these items are photomechanical reproductions and have no value. Look very closely at the artwork through a piece of glass. Can you see the dot structure of a screen? If so it’s been reproduced on a printing press.
The History of the Auction Houses
Since the early 1970′s the auction houses have had a major impact on the contemporary art market. For decades auctions were the purview of a small band of dealers that understood the market and purchased at lower prices for resale.
The first major jump from this rather self-absorbed little society into the larger cultural consciousness came in the early ’70′s when Robert and Ethel Scull sold a portion of their late 60′s Pop Art collection for a huge profit. The auction market hasn’t looked back since. If you recall, art was touted as a hedge against the rampant inflation of the’70′s, and more retail money started flowing in.
In the mid – 80′s Alfred Taubman, a real estate developer, bought Sotheby’s and changed the auction world by marketing to the masses. He established the Arcade auctions, which sold works of art at lower prices and drew in hundreds of new retail clients. Through marketing he attracted the new money from the Wall Street Boom, plus the seemingly never-ending supply of money from the Japanese. The art market was no longer made up of club-like cliques.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s liquified the auction market by extensively increasing their client base. Because of this liquidity, for the first time, art could be – and unfortunately was – viewed as a commodity in which one could invest.
Furthermore, art bought at auction was truly chic. Important CEOs, when persuaded to attend auctions, found themselves surrounded by peers and collegues alike. Their acquisitions received great press appearing on Page Six column of the New York Post. As a result, prices continued to sore. I remember one auction at which a Jasper Johns print sold for a ridiculously high price. My friend, a print dealer who had the same print in stock for much less, had to keep herself from jumping up and yelling “Don’t buy it here. Buy it from me!”.
The music ended in 1990 and the auction market tanked, leaving the Japanese with thousands of overpriced mediocre Impressionist paintings and many Wall Street tycoons, with a lot of art they really didn’t want in the first place.
So how is it now? Well, things are strong again. Excellent work gets excellent prices, but there is not the sort of tulip bulb frenzy that reigned in the late 80′s – Thank God. And the print market, which suffered the most, has yet to come back with the same force as the market for painting and sculpture. Collectors, today, are rationally cautious. How the internet will affect this in the future is anyone’s guess. Sotheby’s will start on line in the Spring. We’ll see.