This post is part of a blog series celebrating the College Art Association annual conference taking place in New York City from February 15–18. Please visit us at Booth 605 if you are attending, and otherwise stay tuned for more content related to our new and forthcoming Art books.

by John Zarobell, author of Art and the Global Economy

In a recent Artelligence podcast, Nicholas Maclean, a former Head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department and currently a private dealer, suggested that the percentage of the art market that is created through private transactions could be as high as 70–75%. This goes against conventional wisdom and the most detailed economic assessments of the current art market produced annually by Clare McAndrew, who estimates the portion of private sales to be roughly equivalent of what is transacted in the public art auction market. If Maclean is right, and he ought to know since he has spent his career in auction houses and for the past eleven years in private sales, the value of art sold globally would not be $63.8 billion, as McAndrew estimated for 2015, but more like $120–130 billion. There is a huge gap between these two estimates that underlines the fundamental problem with estimates of the art market: much of what they are calculating is hidden from public view and is therefore difficult to estimate by researchers who focus upon cultural economics.

These kinds of debates are grist for the academic mill, but they also expose a gap between the economic perspective on the art market and the views of those who make it their business. For private dealmakers like Maclean and his partner Christopher Eykyn, also a former auction house specialist, the amount of high-value art moving through private channels is not something that they could disclose because the entire business model is based on discretion. For their survival, they need to keep their sellers and buyers secret and to prevent the public from finding out the value of art that they are moving. So we will never know. McAndrew’s method for discovering this information is to send out surveys to dealers around the world but, even in a confidential survey, it seems possible that businessmen would not reveal the scope of their private transactions. Further, with art exhibitions and exchanges happening globally more than ever before, is it possible to capture all the transactions outside of traditional art world centers?

This is but one manifestation of the many aspects of the art market that are shrouded from view in our global economy and private sales will likely remain in the category of things we know that we do not now. So what is the point of trying to estimate the size of the art market and whom does it serve? The reality is that, according a report from Deloitte and ArtTactic, 76% of collectors of contemporary art are “collecting with an eye to investment” and therefore, while these collectors may be champions of global contemporary art, they are also investors looking for something that will increase in value. Therefore they need to know 1) whether the art market is increasing in value overall, 2) what sectors of the market are increasing the most and 3) which artists are enjoying price booms. These are the kinds of questions economists estimate for a living and it is expected that they understand them better than, say, art historians or curators.

Conversations on the economics of the art market presume that what they address is knowable and measurable but I argue the opposite is true. Further, the entire field of research is geared towards marginalizing the most essential players in the art market, namely the artists themselves. In order to calculate the size of a market, it must be circumscribed and this is the greatest challenge to understanding the art market. What is part of the “art market” and what gets left out? Surely, the constant drumbeat of “record-breaking” sales at the big auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, are included, but what about the high-value merchandise moved by dealers like Maclean and Eykyn and so many others like them? Further, which galleries that sell fine art are included in McAndrew’s survey and which are not? With something like 1000 galleries in Chelsea alone, how could one ever come to understand the scale of the private trade in art? And this accounting only addresses the artists that show in galleries. Most active artists do not have gallery representation and sell works out of their studios, or at small art fairs, or through online portals. These exchanges are not being counted in calculations of the art market.

The truth is that the “art market” is not a coherent, or accurate, assessment of how much art gets sold internationally. In fact, as an estimate it is no more than a shot in the dark that serves the self-implicating victors of the art world, the auction houses and galleries who specialize in a certain strain of fine art, i.e. the most valuable and visible. More importantly, the art market is a device that allows all sorts of participants in the art world to transform the countless efforts of artists around the world into a global industry. The art market does not exist except as an economic abstraction and, as many writers on the topic have clarified, it represents interlinked circuits of commercial activity around the world. But it does provide a device to imagine that all of those activities are somehow linked through a global economic system. The term manufactures a collective fantasy and allows art world types to feel that they are participating in this much larger phenomenon whose overall upward trend means that everyone (artists, collectors, dealers) will be better off in the future.

But even the dealmakers in the art world know that we imagine the art market to be is nothing more than a passing glance at the exchanges in the art world. Markets sound real, their details seem crucial to everyone participating, and much can be learned about the development of the art world in the last generation from studying how the market has changed. But let us not forget that when we accept the fiction of the art market as a fact, we may be exchanging our love of art for an esteem for the market.


John Zarobell is Assistant Professor of International Studies at University of San Francisco. He has held curatorial positions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A regular contributor to San Francisco Art Quarterly and the web-based journal Art Practical, he has written for numerous exhibition catalogues and has curated exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. He is the author of Empire of Landscape: Space and Ideology in French Colonial Algeria.