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'm interested in information about art as investment and how much it goes up in value over time. I am also 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 believe there are answers to questions like these as they attempt to quantify the art market and in particular, calculate returns on investment. The short answer is that there are no answers. The art market is vast, diverse and unquantifiable, and despite claims to the contrary, reliable measures of art market transactions don't really exist. While there are studies that purport to analyze certain sectors of the trade, the samples those studies are based on are often biased in favor of the results or conclusions that the researchers wish to demonstrate or achieve. You'll read more about that below. But first a few facts about the art world as a whole.

To begin with, art is not a commodity that can be defined or regulated. Anyone can call themselves an artist, anyone can call anything that they create "art," and anyone can become an art dealer or own an art gallery. As if that's not enough, anyone can sell art wherever, whenever and under whatever circumstances they please, and price or sell whatever they call "art" for hoever much they feel like selling it for, as long as it's offered for sale without committing fraud or misrepresentation.

Art is being sold everywhere all the time-- on social media, artist websites, gallery websites, websites where artists or galleries pay fees to display their art, fixed-price secondary market and resale websites, classified ad sites, online auction sites, art galleries, art fairs, art walks, open studios, flea markets, estate sales, bricks & mortar auctions, museum sales and rental galleries, "Nothing Over $39.95" sales, local country auctions, directly out of artists' homes and studios, street fairs, wine bars, antique collectives, framing stores, on the street, interior design showrooms, coffee shops, condo lobbies, cruise ships, county fairs, and on and on and on. Obviously, assembling any kind of meaningful data on overall art market transactions is not possible.

Art sells in all price ranges. Some is brand new; some is hundreds of years old. Some is sold directly to retail buyers by the artists; some might pass through a series of individual sellers, wholesalers, middlemen or galleries on the way to its final destinations. This art includes paintings, sculptures, etchings, lithographs, photographs, serigraphs, digital prints, ceramics, mosaics, wood carvings, ceramics, textiles, weavings, tapestries, watercolors, drawings, mixed media works, video art, and so on. Some art sells at auctions and other public sales, but much of it changes hands in private transactions. In all, millions of pieces of art are bought, sold, traded or otherwise passed from owner to owner locally, regionally, nationally and internationally every year.

Another reason why overall art sales statistics simply aren't available is due to the proprietary nature of the business. Artists, art galleries, buyers, sellers and collectors generally prefer that sales transactions stay private and often go to great lengths to keep them that way. Artists don't want other artists knowing how much art they sell or what prices they sell for; galleries don't want other galleries knowing how well or poorly they're doing; collectors don't want other collectors knowing what they buy, where they buy it 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 the market, prices and what's selling where, and the less your competition knows, the more money you make, the less money they make, and the more good art you get your hands on before they do.

The good news is that as the Internet evolves, more and more price information becomes available online. Millions of international auction sales results from auction houses around the world are now accessible through websites and databases like Artprice, Artnet, Blouin Art Sales Index, Invaluable, Liveauctioneers and even eBay. Increasing numbers of artists, dealers and galleries are also posting prices. The caveat here is that you better know what you're doing if you're trying to research or analyze prices or any other kinds of art market data you find online, because information can often be sketchy, incomplete, inaccurate or just plain false. For example, it's not unusual to find a large range of prices for a single artist or type of art. Fakes, forgeries and misrepresentations are rampant. What art is priced at and what it ends up selling for can be substantially different dollar amounts. Verifying information or documentation presented by sellers can be difficult to understand, verify or evaluate. And on and on and on.

Now for the biggie. Does art increase in value over time, and if yes, by how much? Those of you who follow the art market may run across occasional studies, charts or indexes that purport to show how art prices go up over time. Unfortunately, they're almost always based on skewed samples, like for example, only on sales of artworks that have appeared more than once at auction. The main reason certain works of art appear repeatedly at auction is that they tend to go up in value over time, not down. So in other words, studies of repeat auction sales results that show how art increases in value are based mainly on art that increases in value-- NOT on all the other art that either stays the same or goes down in value. Silly, isn't it?

Most studies that show how art increases in value are based on similarly biased samples like, for example, exclusively on high-end auction sales of art by desirable artists. Again, with samples like that, conclusions that art goes up in value are based mainly on art that goes up in value, not on art that doesn't. Other problems with using auction sales as a basis for any types of claims that art increases in value are that auction houses tend to accept only art they think will sell well (increase in value) while rejecting all the rest. Likewise, sellers tend to consign only art they think they can sell at a profit, not at a loss. Art that is likely to sell poorly either does not get consigned in the first place, or gets rejected by the auctions if sellers try to consign it. Truth be told, and in terms of the art market as a whole, claims that art increases in value are highly overrated. ALWAYS read the fine print to see what those conclusions are based on.

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


(ceramic art by Myung Nam An)

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