The Art Market

Juan de Pareja
The painting at the left, Juan de Pareja, by Velazquez, was painted in 17th century Spain. It is one of the most amazing and penetrating portraits of the entire 17th century, showing Velazquez’s assistant, who was of mixed blood (of Moorish and Spanish descent), as a confident, proud man with an incredible sense of presence. In the Spanish court, for which both Velazquez and Juan de Pareja painted, the rigid social system would have labeled anyone of mixed blood as an outsider. Velazquez, however, saw past those social barriers and painted a picture of the man within. This striking portrait is one of the earliest studies of personality in painted portraiture. (The artist knew how good this picture was, and actually had Juan de Pareja stand next to the picture for a comparison, so people could see how well it came out!)

The painting of Juan de Pareja was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1971.  The Met paid over 5 ½ million dollars. At the time, it was considered a scandal to pay so much for a work of art. Today, however, this same picture could easily be worth ten times as much on the contemporary art market.

Since the 1980s, prices in the art market have increased dramatically, particularly for works of art by major masters. Prices for pictures by artists like Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet have been extremely high.  Van Gogh’s paintings, in particular, have soared in price at recent auctions.  One version of his Sunflowers sold for $40 million; his Irises broke $50 million. Both are simply pictures of flowers. Finally, his portrait of Dr. Gachet, the doctor who treated Van Gogh before he committed suicide, fetched $82.5 million in 1990.  The art world was stunned, and thought prices could not continue to rise, and that the new owner of the picture would eventually lose money. Wrong.  The picture sold again privately for 90 million dollars. 

The art world today expects record prices to be broken.  The latest sale to do exactly that took place in May of 2004. Boy with a Pipe, a painting created by Picasso when he was in his mid twenties, sold for $104 million.  (The hammer price was $93 million, and the rest went to the auction house for handling the picture.) To date, this is the most expensive painting sold at auction.  Stay tuned.

Recent prices have gone so high that people are asking serious questions about buying art. These are questions that need to be addressed to understand today’s art world:

  • Are works of art really worth this much? Should they sell for such high prices?
  • Why are Van Gogh’s works selling for higher prices than other artists? Is he really that good, or is something else going on?
  • Why do private collectors spend so much to own a Picasso, Van Gogh or work by other great master?  What do they obtain by doing this? 
  • What will happen when prices go so high museums cannot afford to bid against rich private collectors? (Example: Bill Gates is acquiring a large private collection, including a rare manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci, for which he paid $30.5 million. Now that he has these works in his own collection, the rest of us cannot see them. )  
  • Can anything be done about the prices in the art market? Should anything be done? 
Van Gogh
Vincent Van Gogh's Dr. Gachet.  Van Gogh painted more than one version of this picture, but one has recently become famous for its price tag: $90 million.

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