How do dealers price contemporary art in a world where objective criteria seem absent? Talking Prices is the first book to examine this question from a sociological perspective. On the basis of a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including interviews with art dealers in New York and Amsterdam, Olav Velthuis shows how contemporary art galleries juggle the contradictory logics of art and economics. In doing so, they rely on a highly ritualized business repertoire. For instance, a sharp distinction between a gallery’s museumlike front space and its businesslike back space safeguards the separation of art from commerce.
Velthuis shows that prices, far from being abstract numbers, convey rich meanings to trading partners that extend well beyond the works of art. A high price may indicate not only the quality of a work but also the identity of collectors who bought it before the artist’s reputation was established. Such meanings are far from unequivocal. For some, a high price may be a symbol of status; for others, it is a symbol of fraud.
Whereas sociological thought has long viewed prices as reducing qualities to quantities, this pathbreaking and engagingly written book reveals the rich world behind these numerical values. Art dealers distinguish different types of prices and attach moral significance to them. Thus the price mechanism constitutes a symbolic system akin to language.
Olav Velthuis has worked as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Konstanz and has been a Visiting Scholar at Princeton University and Columbia University. Currently he writes about economic affairs for the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant.
"It seemed that my respondent stood the world on its head: in his com- mercial role as a dealer, when I expected him to be concerned about prices and proﬁts, he refused to talk numbers. Instead, the metaphor he used to characterize his business was a “family” and a “community” rather than a marketplace—reﬂecting on his own enterprise in terms of commerce, marketing, or business strategies seemed out of the question. In his living space, however, the same dealer apparently felt inclined to discuss the value of his precious collection in bare economic terms. Since I expected that explicit monetary measurement is avoided in the private sphere, especially regarding goods with a strong symbolic value like art, this attracted my attention as much as his earlier avoidance of prices did."
This book is a marvelous research about the mechanisms of pricing in the contemporary art world, based on New York and Amsterdam. The author analyses both the avant-garde and the traditional circuit, and he makes some interesting discoveries that aim towards the same direction: neo-classical economic accounts can't grasp the symbolic aspect that's central to the way contemporary art is produced, sold, moved, bought and exhibited. He uses Zelizer's theory in order to dismiss proponents of both "hostile worlds" and "nothing-but" analyses of the way this particular sector of the economy works.
Actually, it’s more of a 3.5 Stars book. In spite of being a reworked dissertation this book is rather readable, even for readers, that are non-specialist in sociology, economics or contemporary art. Velthuis’ aim is to construct a socio-economic model of the art market that is not reductionist, but accounts for the complex web of scripts, tropes and moral arguments the different actors use to make sense of the strange and mostly contingent relation between art works and their value. He shows, rather convincingly in my view, that the art market is at least as much as dependent on moral arguments and values as on purely economical reasoning. Even if this book has been published before the Saatchisation and oligarchisation of the market for contemporary art, readers get a good overview about the conflicting sets of values & assumptions about art and money that dealers, artists and buyers have to navigate and reconcile. Velthuis provides a good basis for starting your own expedition into the strange world that is the art market. Since “Talking Prices” retains some feature of doctoral thesis readers have to put up with some redundancies and technical jargon, especially economics, but it’s worth it, if you really want to get past cheap damnation or idealisation of the contemporary art market as ruined by too much money.
Read this one for my research paper on how to price art and I found it very well-written. Vethuis is broke down this very insular bubble into something digestible for the newcomer, and I really began to draw parallels between this traditional art world and the new realm of digital art.
I entered the world of art dealership and gallery management after a stint in marketing and advertising. Being confident with my skills and achievements in my previous job, being an art dealer seemed like no hassle. The reality however, began bursting this bubble and keep me wondering how exactly does the art market work and how come it defies almost all my understandings if deals and negotiations? Then I stumbled upon this brilliant book. While attempting to be as precise and scientific as possible, it was at the same time greatly informative and innovative with methods of conducting the research and way of looking at the art economy. This book is highly recommended for anyone who wants to have a better understanding about how the art market works, how artworks are priced and how can one operate a business in this industry.