History Of The Art Market: Chronology Since Greece And Rome To The 21st Century

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In order to paint an accurate picture of the current art market we must look back in time to its beginnings. It is complex to accurately determine when exactly art became a business.

Greece and Rome

The earliest substantial evidence of an art transaction dates back to the year 500 b. C. approximately. It is a cup that shows a man purchasing a vase. Still, the art market did not expand significantly until the Italian Renaissance.

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In ancient Greece art was mostly created for public buildings and religious temples. Artists were not considered to be so, but to be artisans instead. Around 325 b.C. art collecting boomed as a trend and small painted vases and bronzes became objects of desire amongst the population. Street markets in which those who wished to do so were able to purchase different forms of art became the norm and art acquired a luxurious connotation, that set it apart from the merely religious purpose it served before. The city of Sicyon was the center of the Hellenistic art market since it produced many sculptors and painters.

With the expansion of the Roman Empire came a notable expansion of the art market as well, as commercial relations were established with other societies throughout the Mediterranean. A taste for art incoming from far away places developed amongst Romans and some even showcased their pieces in their own homes so that they could be appreciated by others.

The origins of the word “subhasta” also date back to the Roman Empire. Auction sales were conducted in order to get rid of war booty and slaves as well as to resolve various cases of insolvency in which the individual’s property was taken over by the state. Auctions in which slaves were sold were conducted “sub hasta” (under the spear of the guardians that watched the slaves) which is where the word originated.

Middle Ages

With the arrival of the Medieval Age and the rise of Christianity as the main religion in Europe art went back to serving the religious purpose it used to. Monasteries and cathedrals became the main spots in which art could be found and religion became the main theme for artists. Various pilgrimage routes that extended throughout Eurasia, as well as the adoration of ancient religious relics, made a significant impact in the development of the art market during these times.


With the Italian Renaissance and the comeback of the classical ideals of beauty and art, came a time of flourishment for the art trade. Objects prevenient from the Greek and Roman eras were an object of desire to the point where many started forming collections. Art collections were showcased by their owners in rooms dedicated to this purpose, the name of which was “studiolos” and Italy became the art capital of Europe. Art transactions were carried out freely throughout the cities of Florence and Venice, where confraternities of secondhand dealers (rigattieri) appeared. These vendors started out by trading old objects but, eventually, some moved on to tapestries, statues and painted images. The value of paintings remained low until the 16th century, when artists went from being considered artisans to a more elevated conception. During the 15th century the Medici family were the most famous art collectors and patrons of Florence, the fame of which has lasted throughout time.

As the 15th century was coming to an end Rome started to rise as the artistic centre of Europe. It was there and then, when artists like Michelangelo and Botticelli created their masterpieces under the patronage of different popes. The former is estimated to be the highest-paid artist of the era, but the figures made by him were nowhere near close what would be paid for their art in the current times.

In northern Europe an art market developed in the most important mercantile cities, like Bruges. Part of the art was still painted on commission, specially art meant to serve a specific purpose, portraits and other icons.

16th Century

It was during the 16th century when dealers and agents rose as art specialists. The first portraits of collectors date back to those times. Art established as a recognised discipline with the emergence of art academies, art criticism and theoretical writing. In northern Europe, artists were still considered artisans, a situation that was soon about to change thanks to the popularisation of prints. As it was a cheaper way of producing art efficiently, artists did not need a patron to support them which allowed them to freely create their art, thus finally setting themselves apart from artisans. Also during the 16th century, artists and collectors started developing a taste for the bizarre and extravagant, the rarer the better. Collections grew in size significantly, setting themselves apart from 15th-century studios.

17th Century

During the 17th century, collecting art became a widespread activity amongst the wealthy, and galleries appeared focusing on a more concrete aspect of art, instead of the ample collections that were popular in the previous centuries. There are many paintings from this era that depict this phenomenon. By the end of the 17th century, there had been exhibitions and art sales established in Rome which stood as the art capital of the continent, and the world, despite the rise in popularity of Antwerp and Amsterdam. Both Antwerp and Amsterdam had become major centres of artistic production in Northern Europe as Flanders declined artistically and economically. In Antwerp important merchants established themselves as references in the art market. An example would be Cornelis van der Geest and Nicholas Rockox, both holders of impressive collections and friends with Rubens. In Amsterdam, Rembrandt was himself an avid art collector and is reported to have spent so much money at auctions that it led to his bankruptcy on multiple occasions.

In Great Britain, Royals were known to own impressive collections of paintings and antiquities. But with the outbreak of the Civil Wars in England (1642-1651) many of these collections were dispersed. After the end of the war, an important influx of Dutch artists boosted the art market in London as they introduced auctions and overall helped the market develop.

In Spain, the royal collection was one of the greatest, including over 5,500 masterpieces, many by Velazquez. In contrast, France’s collection was not so great, but included a few very important pieces by Michelangelo and an important amount of jewelry and other precious objects.

Overall, in the 17th century an important trade between Europe and Asia started. With the foundation of the Dutch and English East India Companies, the object of interest of which were porcelain and lacquerware. Making use of these porcelain pieces in interior decoration became a trend amongst European aristocrats as a consequence, one that would last for the centuries to come.

18th Century

During the 18th Century, collecting antiquities, specially Greek was one of the main trends. Respected Scottish art dealer Hamilton, said that “the most valuable acquisition a young man of refined taste can make is a piece of fine Greek sculpture”. It was popular for men to go on an European tour during their younger years, in order to visit the main cultural cities and acquire pieces for their collections. The dominated the market with Hamilton himself being one of the greatest collectors. London’s art market also developed significantly with the popularisation of new auctioneering methods brought by the Dutch. This allowed independent auction houses to flourish and Sotheby’s and Christie’s were founded. The first paintings auction was held in London in 1682, almost a century later in 1744 Sotheby’s was founded by Samuel Baker. It was originally a bookselling service and it did not settle as the auction business it is today until the 20th Century. James Baker founded his auction house in 1766 and quickly became a renowned art auctioneer.

The Polish, Russian and Prussian royals also owned notable art collections, with Empress Catherine II of Russia’s being one of the most well-known.

In Italy, Venice continued to behave on of the most relevant markets, as well as Florence with a more touristic focus. With the ascension to the crown of Louis XIV, the French royals became great artistic patrons. Paris rose to be an important European market with the emergence of “marchands merciers” which were decorative arts dealers and popularised luxurious art pieces amongst the French. Some of the best-known “marchand merciers” were Dominique Daguerre, Duvaux and Poirier, which had shops in the rue Saint-Honoré, where the art market of the French capital had its focus and many auctions were also held.

19th Century

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars caused a great impact on the European art market during the 19th Century. The French domination of the market was destroyed and overcome by London where many aristocrats went to sell part of their collections. One of the most notable examples of London’s success took place when the duke d’Orléans’ collection was liquidated as a result of the French Revolution, bringing to England paintings of a quality that had not been seen for centuries. George IV was one of the most remarkable English collectors during this period.

Napoleon gained access to the Italian and Belgian collections when he invaded said territories. Using a team of art experts, the French sorted the treasures from Italy and Belgium and took over the most valuable treasures held by them, like masterpieces from the Vatican’s galleries and Rubens’ collection. The Musée Napoleon (currently the Louvre) held an array of the best European masterpieces for a while. After Napoleon’s abdication many works seized by his armies were returned to their original owners.

Antiquarianism resurfaced as a collecting trend in the latter 19th Century. Especially in England antiques were greatly appreciated and furniture and decorative objects were designed to mimic those of Gothic and Romantic styles.

Orientalism was another one of the centuries most popular trends. Embraced and promoted by the Impressionist and Art Noveau movements, dealerships specialised in this type of art opened in Paris and London.

In England the contemporary art scene was rapidly expanding when Queen Victoria arrived to the throne. Artists gained social status as many collectors started to show a preference in contemporary art over old art. The importance of public exhibitions and the growing prestige of the Royal Academy helped settle artists and increase the prices of modern pictures enormously. Art fairs where copies of famous paintings were sold became really popular making art more available to the middle classes. Contemporary art totally eclipsed old art when in the 1870s William Holman Hunt sold one of his paintings for more than the National Gallery paid for Da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks”.

Despite London’s importance, Paris remained the artistic focus of the times with the many art movements, some of which were very innovative, that appeared during there during the 19th Century. Durand-Ruel created a market for Impressionists which had been disregarded by the official Academy, giving dealers a new approach in which they established art trends.

The auction market continued to experience growth, specially from the 1880s both in France and England with the sale of many great collections as a consequence of the Agricultural Depression. The first American auction house, the American Art Association, opened in 1883 but the business did not pick up quite as rapidly as in Europe.

One of the most remarkable milestones of the 19th Century art market was the expansion in number, size and importance of museums. The Museum in London, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris, the Austrian Museum in Viena, the Bavarian State Picture Gallery in Munich, the Kasier-Friedrich Museum in Berlin, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston were all remarkable for their collections. The main purpose of these museums was education but combined with the art history studies carried out during that period, had a vital impact on the art market as they helped promote a different, more educational and scholarly vision of art. A reevaluation of artists and movements that existed throughout history and were mostly forgotten took place. Some of these “rediscovered” artists were El Greco, Vermeer, Hals, Fra Angelico and Botticelli. This made all their paintings skyrocket in value as well as it affected the new generation of artists that was to come as they took inspiration from them.

First half of the 20th Century

After the year 1900 American collectors and art dealers started playing a major role in the world’s art market. Joseph Duveen was the most successful and up to this day the period between 1900 and 1940 has often been called “the age of Duveen”. He supplied the greatest American collections of the era showing exquisite taste in a time where aristocracy and the societal recognition of art collecting had an irresistible appeal for the American elite. This art market boom came to an end with the 1929 stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. Despite this, American art museums flourished during the thirties and forties, largely surpassing private collectors as patrons of the art market.

At the beginning of the 20th century the main focus of interest of Americans was old art, which slowly started to shift towards more contemporary pieces as it had happened in Britain the century before, following the decision of the American government to reduce taxes in newer artworks.

In Europe, auction houses carried most of the weight of the art market and Christie’s and Sotheby’s finally established themselves as the auction giants they are today. Paris continued to be the home to many of the greatest artists of the time, and consequently the art market there continued to grow.

Second half of the 20th century

With the beginning of World War II the art market slowed down in Europe as many Jewish dealers were forced to move their businesses to New York. Just like the French army under Napoleon’s direction, the Nazis appropriated art from collection throughout Europe. Tens of thousands of art pieces were seized from private Jewish and French collectors. German museums also suffered as Hitler decided to uplift German representation in art, thus removing what he considered to be “decadent” pieces (mostly from Italian Old Masters).

As a result, the market in America, but specifically New York benefited. It became the centre for modern art, overshadowing Paris. Pierre Rosenberg and Peggy Guggenheim were the most important refugee dealers in the city. The latter launched Mondrian’s career and attracted modern artists.

The European market was slow to recover after the war, and for a while, dealers led the market. Finally, Sotheby’s introduced important innovations to the auction world such as telephone bidding, charity auctions, and the publication of presale estimates. Christie’s caught up to these innovations and the market was back in the hands of auction houses. Collecting gained popularity as a result of specialised television programs and the Pop art movement, both of which helped in making art more accessible to the general public.

Art critics, dealers, artists and museums all flourished in New York and auction houses took an important role as art sellers from 1973 when magnate Robert Scull’s collection was auctioned and some of the pieces sold for over 50 times the price they had been bought for. Art started to gain importance as an investment consequently and in 1974, Rail Pension Fund invested $70 million in it. During the 80s and 90s the art market boomed again particularly in the sale of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings. Japanese buyers started taking a major part in the market following the reevaluation of the yen in 1985. There were as well changes to the U.S. tax laws that stopped incentives that encouraged donating art to museums, causing many to sell their collections. It was during the period from 1987 to 1990 that art prices escalated the most, following the 1987 market crash. It was also during this period that Van Gogh, who had only sold one painting in his entire life, became the most sought-after artist in the world.

For a while, the art market did not seem to be affected by fluctuations in money markets. Really, prices were being forced up in a war of interests in the field. Many smaller dealers and auction houses were forced to close and the reaffirmation of Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and other art giants, took place.

21st Century

With the new century fairs became increasingly popular as they offered dealers publicity and many potential buyers, and they offered buyers the commodity of comparing art and prices in one place. Upcoming trends could be seen at art fairs where all the components of the art market gathered in one spot.

Beginning in the year 2000 a series of scandals regarding Christie’s and Sotheby’s surfaced and they were brought to trial for fixing commission rates. Their losses totaled to around $590 million but their business carried on and they kept their spots on top of the auction game.

The 2008 financial crisis did not affect the art market as large as it could have but as with any other market, sales were affected.

Art as an investment popularised with globalization and social media and nowadays it is possible for one to take place in the art market from the commodity of one’s one home. The online marketplace changed the way art is viewed and purchased forever, but also the way art is created. New materials and technology are developing new ways of making art and every day the market is more and more diverse.

Women have finally started having a significant role in the art world as well as minorities but it is still dominated by white men. This is highly likely to change in the years to come as society has become increasingly aware of social issues revolving around these groups and discrimination against them is largely criticised, also in the art world.


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