Every March, The European Fine Art Foundation (TEFAF) releases its Art Market Report on the previous calendar year in the industry. For the 12 months afterward, that report gets elevated to the status of "gold standard for current art-market data" by transparency-starved analysts worldwide. But every year, I think that the study's most useful insights are the unintentional ones lurking in its methodology and distribution. Just as I expected, 2016 is no different.
The art media started circulating highlights from the 2016 TEFAF report yesterday. However, I don't want to dial in on the numbers themselves. I expect they deserve just as much side-eye as those in the 2015 edition, where the grand conclusions about the gallery/dealer sector––estimated to be 295,000 businesses strong by the report's authors––came from anonymous surveys sent to only 6,000 people. Worse, only 13 percent actually responded. That translates to about 780 galleries/dealers total, or roughly 0.26 percent of the overall sector.
Another eyebrow-raising consideration: Even that sliver of a sample is "skewed towards the middle to higher end of the market," according to page 226 in the report's Appendix. Based on those limitations, I think the general trends captured in the 2015 report are probably reliable. But I'm much less comfortable trusting the details than a lot of other analysts.
The important point about these sampling handicaps, though, is that the number and type of respondents helped crystallize the gallery/dealer sector's continued commitment to opacity in 2015. TEFAF report lead author Clare McAndrew and crew likely didn't bother sending more surveys because they knew they would get no-responsed the vast majority of the time. Meanwhile, the results they were able to collect largely came from the galleries/dealers performing the best––and only after they were guaranteed anonymity. To me, that's arguably just as valuable a capsule of the market's state as many, if not most, of the report's soft numbers.
How does this year's methodology stack up? Turns out I can't tell you yet, thanks to another trait the study shares with the industry it observes: continued resistance to technological progress. The 2016 TEFAF report is not available in a digital format. It can only be bought as a hard copy packaged and sent from the foundation's headquarters in The Netherlands. And hilariously, or embarrassingly, or both, the shipping cost to anywhere outside the E.U. and Switzerland––25 Euro––exceeds the actual price of the report itself by five Euro.
You could certainly argue that I'm making a Funk Flex bomb out of a firecracker here, but I think the irony is telling. Want the headline-making document with the most current data on a technophobic industry? Great, just wait a couple weeks for a sheaf of mangled trees to travel over an ocean and get crammed into your mailbox by a disgruntled postal worker. It's like ordering weight-loss tips from someone who has to be winched out of bed with a pulley system. And on the issue of technological lag, that says more about the art industry's recent history and present-day status than any numbers in the TEFAF report are likely to.