Artnet’s Katharine Markley put together a list of 25 artists, split between Impressionist (the ones I’ve colored greenish); Modern (yellowish); and Contemporary (purplish).
Clicking through the title of this post (or the link I'll put here) will take you to an interesting (at least, to my twisted mind) post by Felix Salmon centered on a chart created via auction data from artnet. According to Salmon, his original goal was to try to find out if different big name artists’ respective values at auction differed over the same time period, and if so, by how much. What he found instead is that all of the artists for which he had data within three different cohorts (Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary) pretty much all followed the exact same course relative to one another. In other words, when Rauschenberg’s prices climbed, so did Warhol’s; when Picasso’s prices dropped, so did Matisse’s.
I’m not going to regurgitate every salient point and conclusion that Salmon draws from the data. (I like and appreciate all of you who are reading this, but I don’t think any of us wants me to go all mother-bird-feeding-her-chicks on you.) Instead, I want to isolate one idea. Salmon closes the post by noting that the rule of bubbles is that “each successive [one] is larger than the last,” and that based on where we are in the current ascension of auction values, “we [might] still have a little ways to go yet, before this one bursts.”
I am increasingly interested in the idea of bubbles in the art market. I’ve already written at least one post founded on the same dogmatic belief that we are indeed in the middle of one right now. However, I’m fleshing out a reading list on the topic of bubbles in general (with the help of my perpetually insightful and investment-inquisitive brother). The more I see about them, the less sure I am that we should all be flippantly throwing around the term in regard to the art market. I’ll pen a longer post on this topic when I’m less spaghetti-legged about it overall; I still currently feel a little like instead of making it home to my bed, it’s just as appealing to veer into the nearest alley and pass out on a pile of vacant cardboard. For now, though, Salmon’s chart has given me even more pause on the subject.
Disclaimer: I am not a trained economist. I’m learning as I go. But when I look at Salmon’s chart of the past 25 years in auction prices for these artists, I see eight different peaks, not counting the one that the market is currently skyrocketing toward right now. In the majority of those cases, the cumulative prices look to have climbed for a year, crested, and then plummeted for a year. If you have eight bubbles in a 25 year period, can those all be “bubbles” per se? At what point does the market’s behavior over a longer span cease to be a series of isolated, anomalous, dramatic events and instead become cyclical, with only the magnitude of the rise and fall changing? And if we’ve reached that point, what does it mean for the future of auction prices, especially in the contemporary market?
I don’t have answers to these questions right now. And of course it should be noted that this is small sample size theater at its finest. Even so, to me this clutch of data at least raises the specter of possibility that nonchalantly writing off the present state of the market as “a bubble” may be too facile - and that’s assuming we can even rely on a single, tidy definition for the term to begin with. I wish I had a more satisfying conclusion for you today; this post feels more like a burlesque show than I’d prefer. But the subject is definitely one I’ll continue to keep my eye on as time marches forward.