Written by: Haomin Li
People may wonder: why art market and why the interest in it? Whenever there is a discussion of the art market, a great many people tend to roll their eyes and think negatively of it, regarding the art market as a neoliberal Capitalist encroachment on the purity of the realm of art, which, according to these people, is supposed to remain lofty and ‘uncontaminated’. On quite the contrary, the market actually reinstates artworks as the objects they are originally intended to be: private commemorative pieces, decorative pieces, or propaganda pieces. It may sound radical and disconcerting, but please think of the so-called ‘great art’ today — all those mesmerizingly lifelike portraits, all those landscapes, genre scenes, still lifes, and all those large-scale religious or historical frescoes like those in the Sistine Chapel as well as those in all the churches and cathedrals. Are they ‘proper art’ in the popular sense? The answer is a firm ‘NO’ — portraits are painted to serve a private commemorative function, landscapes, genre scenes, and still lifes are frankly decorative pieces, and those large-scale religious frescoes or history paintings are simply religious or political propaganda. Today, you can surely admire them as ‘works of art’, but keep in mind that they were not initially intended as such. Surely, the art market is not perfect, and in many ways it is deeply problematic, but the burgeoning art market is also engaging in something socially significant — the art market serves the purpose of reinstating the original intention and function of ‘art’. From the marketplace, artworks are able to return home.
It was the academic experience during my very first year at the University of St Andrews that genuinely piqued my interest in the art market — during my tutorials led by Professor Julian M. Luxford, we paid a great amount of attention to the patronage of a specific artwork as well as to the market and appetite for a particular genre. However, just as the vast majority of other Art History departments around the globe, the School of Art History at St Andrews does not offer any undergraduate module solely dealing with the contemporary art market’s (seemingly) glamorous phenomena or the underlying market mechanism. Attracted by the art market but still obviously an utterly ignorant layman, I decided to take two courses offered respectively by Sotheby’s Institute of Art and Christie’s Education to help me gain a preliminary overview of the burgeoning global art market as well as a few insights into this enthralling yet mysterious world of art business. I will introduce and discuss the two programmes in two serial articles, and in this article I will introduce the programme that I took at Sotheby’s Institute of Art after the end of my first year at St Andrews.
In the summer of 2019, I participated in a 4-week programme, ‘Art and its Markets’, at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London. Sotheby’s Institute of Art is a private institute of higher education that was initially founded by Sotheby’s in London in 1969, but it is currently no longer owned by the auction house. The summer programme offered by the Institute looked at the fundamental infrastructure of the global art market and provided me with an essential overview of how artworks circulate commercially in our society, including the the numerous sub-markets (e.g. Old Masters, 19th Century British Art, Chinese Art and Antiques, etc.), the key players (e.g. auction houses, mega galleries, art dealers, incubators, etc.), the operation of an auction house (Sotheby’s in this case), the operation of a commercial gallery, and the professional routine of an art dealer. The programme perfectly combined theoretical knowledge about the art market with practical analysis of specific real-life cases by focussing on five specific categories of artworks that were being contemporaneously auctioned off at Sotheby’s London. The five categories are exciting sub-markets of ‘Impressionist and Modern Art’, ‘Contemporary Art’, ‘Russian Pictures’, ‘Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art’, and ‘Modern and Post‐War British Art’. During the programme, experts from these fields, including art dealers, university lecturers, auction house specialists, and auction house valuers, were invited to share their very precious first-hand insights.
Moreover, what is particularly special about this programme is that it offered various gallery trips across London as well as access to Sotheby’s London, and all these trips to the galleries and to Sotheby’s London were accompanied by informative introductions by gallery owners, gallery workers, and auction house specialists. In the galleries, it was possible to gain an adequate insight into day-to-day operations of a gallery, and the galleries also provided us opportunities to analyse the market demand of artworks produced by various emerging and established artists while having these works right in front of our own eyes. At Sotheby’s London, there were plenty of opportunities to watch auctions in situ and feel the exciting dynamics of an auction in person. On a side note, you may also come across very ‘interesting’ auctions in this programme as an accompanying perk. During my time in summer 2019, I witnessed what was probably Sotheby’s most underwhelming ‘Modern and Post‐War British Art’ evening sale in decades… Many lots were burned, which means ‘left unsold’, and the highest price (which is not even that high) was unexpectedly achieved by a watercolor by Winston Churchill, a dude who was only an amateur artist…To better apply theoretical knowledge to real-life problems, we even did a Visual Analysis Test (VAT) to predict the prices of several artworks using given information such as condition reports, past performances of the artwork, past performances of similar artworks, and their respective provenance.
When this programme came to an end, the most valuable lesson that I had learned is that commercial galleries and auction houses are, in fact, amazing places to go see art besides public art museums and galleries. I understand that lots of us may have the opinion that commercial galleries and auction houses feel like imposingly ‘snobbish’ environments that are not exactly welcoming. This sentiment is perfectly understandable, as I also used to agree that they feel like ‘snobbish’ environment and I did not think I would be comfortable in such an environment either. However, after all those gallery trips and the visits to Sotheby’s London for the supposedly ‘snobbish’ auction preview, my mind was completely changed. Sotheby’s London and many galleries in London are, in fact, very welcoming environments with very friendly and approachable staff (here I’d love to give my special shout-out to the iconic commissionaire Hans Lomulder at Sotheby’s London). Apart from the fundamental friendly environment, auction houses are also perfect locations where niches of artworks are exhibited in a conglomerated manner. Think about this: if you do not go to an auction house, how often in the UK, or anywhere else other than South Asia, are you able to see a large exhibition dedicated solely to modern South Asian paintings? Probably never. However, if you make use of the very helpful resource of auction houses, you may then see these wonderful artworks fairly regularly during auction previews. Auction houses also provide you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see extremely precious works of art by absolute big names such as Claude Monet, Henri Matisse, and Amedeo Modigliani. Take my experience as an example, the portrait by Modigliani which I so fortunately saw during the summer of 2019 only came onto the market and into public sight after almost a century hidden away in some collector’s manor, and, since it was bought by yet another fortunate private collector, it is very likely that this portrait would only resurface after I go on to live my next life. The summer programme at Sotheby’s Institute of Art has certainly provided me as much exciting practical experience and helpful theoretical knowledge.
The workload is not too heavy — in four weeks’ time, you only have a VAT, a market analysis presentation in front of your class and a few industry experts, as well as a 2,500-word market analysis of an artwork of your choice. I would 10/10 recommend art lovers and those who are interested in the art market to apply to this programme. Currently, due to apparent circumstances, the Institute is not offering this summer programme, but, hopefully, after the pandemic is all over, people will be able to participate in this amazing programme again. Nevertheless, the Sotheby’s Institute of Art is still offering numerous other interesting online art+business/market/finance courses. In the next article, I will also share with you a course offered by Christie’s Education that deals with the complex yet very appealing relations between art and finance. Stay tuned!
During a visit to Petworth House, I was able to see the only portrait J. M. W. Turner ever painted
‘Russian Pictures’ Day auction at Sotheby’s London, 10/06/2019