The art market is a financial market. In 2015 it was worth about £41 billion, with around half of that going through public auctions. Prices go up and prices go down but it is a truism that art follows money. A random example, a Malevich self portrait. Bought for £163,000 in 2004 at Christie’s and subsequently sold for £5.8 million in 2015 at Sotheby’s. You would surely remember the 35 times price rise that covers any St. Barts break and a new Lamborghini Veneno (the world’s most expensive car for none Malevich owners). The art market has changed in this century, and in contemporary art it has changed even more. Francis Outred, head of contemporary at Christie’s recently said, “I am convinced I will see a work of art sell for $1 billion in my lifetime.”
The National Art Library delivers a very popular service providing art auction catalogues to a large, varied audience, from art owners to art historians. Prices alone can tell us about trends, fashions and what is or was being exhibited. But how do you easily find the prices when you just have the catalogue? There are stand alone websites, such as artprice, but now you can check the hammer prices of any new art auction catalogue held by The National Art Library in our online catalogue. Click on the “check for pricelist” link in the search results or catalogue record, and you will be taken to an archived copy of the lot numbers and prices for that auction.
Every catalogue from 2013 now includes this link with tens of thousands already added. This is thanks to a collaborative effort led by The Watson Library of the Metropolitan Art Museum to archive and keep available art auction prices which the National Art Library has joined.
The other project partners include: The Frick Library, National Gallery of Art Library, Washington, The Getty Research Institute Library, The Cleveland Museum of Art Library, The Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, and The Richardson Memorial Library of The Saint Louis Art Museum. The National Art Library is supplying catalogue records featuring price lists for several UK auction houses to the project, and benefiting from copy cataloguing and distributed file saving.
Will we see a billion dollar priced art work in these price lists soon? The highest price ever paid already is around $300 million via private sale, and the reasons for the huge price rises in some art are not likely to lessen: the growth of a global super rich interested in art as investment and trophy, the impact of emerging economies and a growing universality in cultural taste for contemporary art. Art also remains, according to many, an under regulated market where transactions and prices are not always what they seem, and which can make a convenient instrument to launder money. This was highlighted many times in the Panama papers. The National Art Library has catalogues from the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries with prices and owners written in. Today’s price lists don’t show the owners.