Fairs Market Features United Kingdom

Dealers, prices and the press

Whether a gallery discloses the price of a work can depend on who you are and why you want to know

Requesting a price at a commercial event—is it too much to ask?

When it comes to talking about art at fairs such as Frieze, The Art Newspaper likes to talk about money. This is, after all, a trade event that lives or dies by the amount of art that galleries manage to sell. And we believe that prices for the art on offer this week should be publicly disclosed: this would encourage greater transparency in the market and would equip buyers with more information to make educated purchases. It also matters if prices for a particular artist are higher or lower than they were six months ago, because price fluctuations are often symptomatic of larger trends: the general mood of the market, an influx of new buyers, museum interest—stories that publications such as this one exist to tell.

Our focus on the price of art in the daily reporting we do here irritates a lot of dealers, however. Many will not tell us what the works they’re offering at Frieze actually cost. Some practically chase us off their stands when we ask the question many galleries have come to dread: “How much?” So we asked 25 dealers who participate in major fairs to explain their policies on price disclosure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tenacity with which many galleries guard price information, only a handful agreed to talk to us.

When money doesn’t talk

The problem, say several dealers, is that talking about money drowns out other conversations about the aesthetic or cultural value of the art they are showing on their stands. “The focus of press reporting at art fairs is almost wholly concentrated on the monetary value of works, and what is or is not selling, and to whom,” says Stuart Shave of Modern Art (FL, D6). “I prefer not to discuss prices with the press for two reasons. First, I hope that artists might have their works’ value assessed outside the measure of economic gain. In this particular context, the press seems to relish only those artists for whom prices are accelerating to unrealistic and unsustainable ends, and in doing so, this kind of reporting becomes intent on promoting only the sector of gallerists that is involved in such systems.

“Second, I feel that artists themselves are potentially uncomfortable with their prices being discussed in the press, as anyone would be when it comes to personal finances. Thankfully for the press, though, for every gallery and artist who isn’t interested in discussing prices, there will be one ready to take their place.”

“Unfortunately, with the proliferation of auctions and fairs, too much emphasis has been placed on the asset class of art and less on the intrinsic aesthetic value,” says Lawrence Luhring of Luhring Augustine, who nevertheless says he reveals prices to the press at fairs, except for “final selling prices” (to protect client confidentiality).

“If one talks about the monetary value of the art sold and the press only considers the market, it does shift the focus from the beauty, integrity and brilliance of the art,” says Liza Essers of South Africa’s Goodman Gallery (FL, H8; FM, S3).

So, too much focus on money at the expense of art. But isn’t this a disingenuous approach to take at a commercial event like an art fair? “Dealers feel that they are engaged in a cultural activity, as well as a commercial one,” says Frieze’s co-director Matthew Slotover. “They could hang their art very differently at an art fair and sell more, but they want to do a great presentation. A lot of people feel very deeply about that. They’re not selling art just to make money.”

“Even the most mercenary gallerists still hold on to the hope that the majority of people care about art for art’s sake. We are all guilty of much preferring to talk about the art [instead of its price], and given the chance to wax on about one of our artists, we are known to be able to do it all day long,” says Marianne Boesky (FL, E2).

This appears to be partly a generational divide. Veteran dealers who have been in the game for decades tend to be the most secretive about prices. Many of them look back wistfully to a time when fairs were calmer, more sober places of business. “Ten or 15 years ago, you’d have more quiet, lengthy discussions with curators, critics and museum people. There would be more time for conversations about things other than money,” says Tim Blum of Blum & Poe (FL, H3; FM, C12). “Fairs had a very different dynamic in the 1980s,” says Todd Levin, the director of Levin Art Group, an art advisory firm. “You’d sit down in someone’s booth, have a cup of tea and have discussions about the quality of the art on show. So much money has entered the market that the dynamic has completely changed. Older gallerists may pine for those early days. Younger gallerists are more comfortable discussing money because today’s hypercharged market is all they know—it’s part of their DNA.”

Thankfully, not all dealers are tight-lipped. “I do not believe that disclosing prices creates a singular focus on the monetary aspect of a work; it is simply transparency,” says Casey Kaplan (FL, A3), who adds that his gallery reveals prices at both fairs and gallery shows. Tim Blum describes himself as “befuddled” by dealers who do not disclose prices. “We’re at fairs to sell art. We’re going there for one reason: to do as much business as possible, in as elegant a way as possible,” he says. And in many cases, galleries send documentation that usually includes prices to their clients before fairs, so “the information is generally known”, Blum says.

The art of the deal

Critics of galleries who maintain a level of secrecy say that the refusal to disclose prices is about one thing only: controlling the market. “I have never met a dealer who’s not a business person,” says a senior figure in the art world who has been involved in a number of major purchases over many years and who asked to remain anonymous. There are two important reasons why dealers do not disclose prices, this source says. First, publishing prices for the work of established artists creates the illusion that a particular piece is available for purchase on the open market, when this is often not the case. “You can’t just buy a work by Gerhard Richter at Frieze; the dealer has thought very hard about who he or she wants to sell to,” and will often work hard to place pieces in museum collections or with a small group of approved collectors.

Second, disclosing prices removes a dealer’s ability to negotiate. “For less established artists, it’s important for galleries to place the work in certain prestigious collections. They might cut the price dramatically to make that happen, but they don’t want anyone to know it,” our source says.

Melanie Gerlis, our art market editor (Europe, Asia, Africa) echoes this view. “Prices are the ultimate way of controlling the art market—from auction-house estimates to primary sales,” she says. “Dealers, understandably, want to retain their control, and the ability to be flexible. But at an art fair, where commerce is the overriding activity, it seems petty, at best, to withhold such basic information. Plus, by doing so, dealers create an environment in which the price of a work becomes newsworthy, which they then complain about.”

Not disclosing prices can work to dealers’ advantage because it contributes to the “significant informational advantage that dealers have over clients in the deal”, says Christian Viveros-Faune, the art critic of the Village Voice and a contributor to The Art Newspaper. “Galleries have a lot of information about work that the client doesn’t have: how many of these works are around? How many more is the artist likely to make? What did the last one sell for and who did it sell to? How many collectors, if any, are interested in the work in question? These are all important bits of information that the dealer has and wants to guard,” Viveros-Fauné says, describing the dealer’s advantage as “information asymmetry”.

And when dealers do disclose prices to the press, they sometimes have their own reasons for doing so, Viveros-Fauné says. “For young, emerging artists, dealers want to acquire a collector base by sending out information that the artist in question is wildly wanted and hot, and by establishing the fable that the work is extremely scarce.” In these cases, price disclosure can help to establish that narrative.

For the work of established artists whose work is more expensive, price disclosure can also help to bolster reputations; for example, when an artist’s secondary prices have fallen below their primary prices—a situation described as “the kiss of death for an artist” by a senior market source who asked not to be named.

So when we publish prices we are sometimes being manipulated by the galleries that reveal them, a situation that could easily be avoided if all galleries disclosed all prices all the time.

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