Art in the Eighties : An International Bull Market


The most expensive artwork on record at the end of the ‘70s was Velazquez’s $5.5-million painting, “Juan de Pareja.” As the ‘80s draw to a close, that dubious honor is held by Van Gogh’s “Irises,” which brought $53.9 million in a 1987 auction.

What accounts for the 10-fold rise?

* An injection of new money from American, European and Japanese collectors. The Japanese, for example, have inflated the French Impressionist market by purchasing vast quantities of paintings at escalating auction prices. One Japanese buyer--Aska International, which operates the Aoyama Gallery in Tokyo--spent more than $120 million in November at New York Impressionist art auctions.

* An increase in private collectors who follow the art scene feather their nests with artworks and contribute to the image of collecting as a fashionable and intellectually rewarding activity.

* A growing belief that art is a good investment, despite hard evidence to the contrary.

* A change in income-tax laws in 1986 that reduced deductions of donated art to the purchase price instead of the appreciated value. Having lost a tax incentive for giving their collections to museums, private collectors began to cash in at auction.


* A proliferation of high-quality--or at least high-profile--works on the resale market. John L. Marion, chairman of Sotheby’s New York, dates this phenomenon to the 1983 sale of the Doris Havemeyer estate. Each big-ticket auction seems to beget others by encouraging collectors to sell.

* Publicity about high auction prices that has raised public awareness and built large audiences. As art prices have become front-page news, Sotheby’s and Christie’s have changed from sedate places where dealers did business to forums for public spectacles. These activities have filtered down from newspaper and television reports to ads for Hughes Markets and Lincoln Town Cars.

All these factors overlap and interact to such a degree that it is difficult to track the causes of the art boom. Effects of soaring art prices also can be elusive. The major auction houses and the sellers of multimillion-dollar artworks are obvious winners in this bull market, as are foundations and charities that have benefited richly from big art sales. The trickle-down effect on artists and dealers is a matter of hot debate, however.

Among the losers during this money-happy decade are museums, most of which have been priced out of the art market at the very moment when reduced income-tax deductions have put a squeeze on donations. The J. Paul Getty Museum stands alone in its spending power, but even that wealthy institution’s budget has been cramped by soaring prices.

Nonetheless, the Getty has emerged as an important collector in the ‘80s. Originally feared for its presumed power to plunder the world’s treasures, the museum later was chastised for being timid and stingy. In fact, the Getty has made big purchases throughout the decade.

As prices have risen, the art market has become increasingly global. Sotheby’s in 1988 staged a landmark auction of Russian avant-garde and Soviet contemporary art in Moscow. This year, Christie’s launched a joint venture operation in Hong Kong, while Sotheby’s joined the Japanese department store, Seibu, in a Tokyo auction.

Big changes are also afoot in Europe. Paris has lagged well behind New York and London in art sales because of protectionist policies, but reforms are already under way and Paris is expected to open up to foreign sales after 1992. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are gearing up for action there.

Whether prices rise or fall, global growth is likely to be the big art market story of the ‘90s.


Top-10 Auction Prices of the 1980s

1."Irises,” Vincent van Gogh, $53.9 million. Sotheby’s New York. 1987

2."Pierrette’s Wedding,” Pablo Picasso, $51.3 million. Drouot Paris. 1989

3."Yo Picasso,” Picasso, $47.85 million. Sotheby’s New York. 1989

4."Au Lapin Agile,” Picasso, $40.7 million. Sotheby’s New York. 1989

5."Sunflowers,” Van Gogh, $39.9 million. Christie’s London. 1987

6."Acrobat and Young Harlequin,” Picasso, $38.5 million. Christie’s London. 1988

7."Portrait of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici,” Jacopo Pontormo, $35.2 million. Christie’s New York. 1989

8."Rue Mosnier With Flags,” Edouard Manet, $26.4 million. Christie’s New York. 1989

9."The Mirror,” Picasso, $26.4 million. Sotheby’s New York. 1989.

10."Motherhood,” Picasso, $24.75 million. Christie’s New York. 1988