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  • Domestic and International Art Market Sales Statistics



    Q: Could you please point me in the direction of both nationwide (United States) and worldwide or international sales statistics on the art market? Are there any industry standard market research reports and/or organizations? The more detail, the better. I am looking for data on buyer demographics; original versus reproduction sales; total domestic and international sales; the numbers of galleries, brokers, and auction houses; and so on.

    A: A surprising number of people search for answers to these and similar questions in attempts to quantify the art market. The art market, however, is not quantifiable and the answers to these questions don't exist. To begin with, art is not a commodity that can be regulated. Anyone can call him or herself an artist, anyone can call anything that they create "art," and anyone can be an art dealer or own an art gallery. Anyone can sell art wherever, whenever and under whatever circumstances they please, and price or sell whatever they call "art" for whatever amounts of money they feel like selling it for, as long as that art is offered without committing fraud or misrepresentation. And they do.

    To further complicate matters, art is sold everywhere all the time-- at individual artist websites, gallery websites, websites where artists pay fees to show their art, secondary market websites like ArtBrokerage.com, auction sites like eBay, outdoor art shows, art galleries, art fairs, open studios, art walks, flea markets, estate sales, big city auctions, museum sales and rental galleries, "Nothing Over $39.95" sales, little country auctions, directly out of artists' homes and studios, street fairs, high in the mountains of Peru, Uncle Charlie's Ice Cream Store, antique and collectible shops, framing stores, on the street, classified ads in the local paper, interior design stores, coffee shops, corporate lobbies, cruise ships, county fairs, remote villages in Botswanaland, and on and on and on. Get the picture?

    This art sells in all price ranges; much of it passes through chains of wholesalers, distributors and other resellers on its way to retail galleries, and ultimately to retail buyers. This includes paintings, sculptures, etchings, lithographs, photographs, serigraphs, wood carvings, ceramics, weavings, tapestries, watercolors, drawings, mixed media works, video art, conceptual art, and so on. And that's just the brand new art; older art sells on secondary markets over and over and over again all the time, often changing ownership in discrete private transactions. In all, millions of pieces of "art" are bought, sold, and traded worldwide every year.

    Another fact about the art business is its proprietary nature. Artists, art dealers and retail buyers prefer that sales figures stay private and often go to great lengths to keep them that way. Artists don't want other artists knowing how much art they are selling or how well or poorly they do; galleries don't want other galleries knowing how well or poorly they do; collectors don't want other collectors knowing what they buy or how much they pay for it. Furthermore, one of the most important rules of the art game is that the more you know about art prices and what's selling where, and the less your competition knows, the more money you make and the less money they make buying, selling and collecting art.

    Limited statistics for major international auction sales of significant works of art by better known artists are available from auction price database publishers like Gordonsart.com, Liveauctioneers.com, Artnet.com, Artprice.com and even eBay, but that information can often be sketchy, inaccurate or incomplete as well. For example, art fails to sell at auctions all the time, but then sells later behind the scenes. Or art fails to sell because pre-sale estimates are unrealistically high. Or extenuating circumstances like condition problems, inadequate publicity on the part of the auction house, poor attendance or lack of knowledgeable bidders at the auction skew selling prices in directions not related to what art is realistically worth.

    That's pretty much it, stat-hounds. You'll have better luck trying to count the stars in the sky than collecting meaningful art market sales data.

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