The Symbolic Meanings of Art Prices | Sociology
Dutch sociologist Olav Velthuis, who I followed classes from during my Master’s, did a field research in 2003 about the price mechanism on the market for contemporary art. I had to read this research during my first college year and it stayed with me as it shed a different light on the art world, specifically arts in galleries. I think this an interesting study, because two seemingly opposing worlds (art and economy) are brought together. I’ve reread it last week and so I want to tell you a little about his findings.
Velthuis had in-depth interviews with different art dealers in New York and Amsterdam. The focus of his study was on the primary market, that is, the market where contemporary artworks are sold for the first time. What he found, was that pricing setting of art isn’t just an economic but also a signifying act. Based on his conversations and observations, he saw how art dealers tried to avoid price decreases at all times. This taboo on price decreases was therewith the most striking phenomenon he found. He also found how dealers avoid pricing artworks of the same size within the oeuvre of an artist differently, even if art dealers know that some works are easier to sell than others. From an economic perspective this behavior is, so to say, atypical. Dealers seem to ignore the concept of price elasticity and behave more like price maximizers than like profit maximizers. Velthuis developed a sociological perspective and interpreted the price mechanism art dealers manage as a symbolic system: art dealers manage to express a range of cognitive and cultural meanings through prices. Taking meanings of prices into account it may as well be interpreted as a sign of quality to collectors or as a source of self-esteem for this particular artist.
A nice concluding mark from the researcher: ‘in a world that opposes commercial values, people find ways of communicating non-economic values via the economic medium of prices (…) By listening to the way art dealers talk when they deal with prices and by observing what they do when they market art, I found that prices tell rich stories about the caring role dealers want to enact, about the identity of collectors, about the status of artists, and the artistic value of art. They succeed in twisting and turning prices in different ways to make sense of their economic life.’
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