Art market

An assessment of Symbolism's market fortunes

We explore the rapid fall from favour of Symbolist art and its recovery in value after academic exposure


Though we are used to the idea that new artistic currents appear, disappear(1) and may be "rediscovered"(2) after some time, it is only seldom possible to quantify the phenomenon.

The fall and rise of Symbolism and Pre-Raphaelitism can however be followed through prices paid at auctions since 1870, for eighteen of the most representative Symbolist painters: Burne-Jones, Crane, Millais, Rossetti and Watts (United Kingdom), Klimt (Austria), Degouve de Nuncques, Delville and Khnopff (Belgium), Lévy-Durmer, Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Redon (France), Von Stuck (Germany), Segantini (Italy), Toorop (The Netherlands), Munch (Norway), and Schwabe (Switzerland).

We collected the characteristics of 3,889 transactions, corresponding exclusively to the Symbolist years (or works) of each painter.(3) This makes for 1,432 paintings, 580 watercolours and 1,897 drawings; they include all sales by Christie's London(4) and sales by Sotheby's London since 1946 only.(5) For sales between 1962 and 1992, we have data compiled by Mayer.

Prices are converted into pounds at the exchange rate prevailing at the end of each year they are corrected for inflation and are expressed in terms of a price index with value 100 in 1970.(6)

The method used to compute price indices is beyond the scope of this article. We only note that it proceeds in two stages. First, it "corrects" each price to make works more comparable so that for example, all paintings will be converted into "identical" objects. Then, since all works have been "standardised", it simply computes annual (or five-year period) averages.

The reason for introducing the first stage can be understood as follows. For homogeneous commodities like wheat or gold (or even stocks), one can simply average prices obtained say, in different locations at various points in time and use these averages to compute an index overtime. This cannot be done for artworks, which are the perfect example of heterogeneous goods: one can hardly compute a price index on the basis of a Picasso sold in 1965 and a Renoir sold in 1966. Nevertheless, such indexes are often constructed by mere addition of the values of sales (sometimes discarding extreme values); this may, however, lead to meaningless results, unless the mix of qualities does not change too much from one year to the next, i.e., if both in 1965 and 1966, a Picasso and a Renoir of comparable qualities are sold. In our calculations, we used a technique that started with the assumption that an object (here a painting or a drawing) consists of a bundle of observable characteristics (true attributes such as technique used, subject, dimensions, artist, etc.), and from these characteristics we inferred the nonobservable "price" of each such characteristic. The observed price of the object can then be decomposed and thought of as a weighted sum of the prices of characteristics, but, since not all attributes are observed, a part of the price of each object will remain unexplained, and contain the influence of time (the trend, if any), as well as random elements. One then obtains the "characteristic free" price of the object (i.e., corrected for quality). These prices can now be added and by taking say, annual averages, one obtains the "average price of the year. (7)


In 1848, seven British artists including Hunt, Millais and Rossetti met in London, form the "Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood" (P.R.B.) and showed their paintings for the first time.

The movement rapidly gained recognition within Great Britain and artists like Burne-Jones, Beardsley, Whistler, Watts and Crane came to be strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites.

Around 1880, the Symbolist atmosphere spread to France (Mallarmé and Péladan; Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes and Redon), Belgium (Verhaeren; Khnopff and Degouve de Nuncques), Germany (Klinger and Von Stuck), the Netherlands (Toorop), Norway (Munch), Italy (Previati and Segantini). It is probably no exaggeration to claim that were it not for the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, the Viennese Secession and Jugendstil would have looked very different, if they had come to exist at all.

The work of many of these artists, however, was considered to be snobbish and meant for the elite; paintings were sold at excessively high prices and by the end of the century, Millais, for example, was able to earn over £750,000 a year.(8)

By the end of the last century already, Symbolism was challenged by Impressionist paintings, which are easier to understand and more pleasant than the obscure mysticism and eroticism of the Symbolists. The various "avant-gardes", born with the twentieth century, turned to a more aggressive and abstract art and reject figuration as being "bourgeois", though the latter was at the root of their own art.

The high prices obtained before the turn of the century consequently started to decrease and Symbolism fell into complete oblivion during the Thirties, Forties and Fifties: in 1950, five drawings by Burne-Jones fetched £150 (at today's prices); likewise, Rossetti's "Quest of the Holy Grail" was sold for £90 in 1953 (at today's prices again). At that time, museums even declined to buy Symbolist paintings (at very "symbolic" prices!), arguing that the artists only offered a "documentary interest".


Symbolism slowly reappears in the late 1950s as a consequence of a revival of figuration (partly due to the success of the Surrealists, whose paintings are rooted in Symbolism) and the rebuttal of the dictatorship imposed by abstract art. In the early 1960s, large exhibitions were devoted to Moreau, Redon and Munch,(9) but the link with Symbolism was not yet there.

In the late 1960s, Godfrey Pilkington, owner of the Piccadilly Gallery in London, realised that some of these artists belonged to the same (forgotten) artistic current: Symbolism. Many Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolist painters were subsequently rediscovered and actively exhibited in private galleries throughout Europe.(10)

During the 1970s, museums followed the trend and exhibited work by Symbolists giving the rediscovery official academic approval. It is also likely that the "Psychedelic" aesthetics and the atmosphere of the Seventies played an important role in making this art more widely known.


Figures 1 and 2 provide an overview of the value of Symbolist art over the long run (1870-1990).

Figure 1 illustrates the dramatic and steady decrease in prices after 1890: prices dropped from 180 in 1890 to 2 in 1950 (recall that at that time a Rossetti sold for £90); they started to recover around 1960; in the late 1970s, prices are back to the previous 1890 peak and follow the general trend thereafter. The figure also shows that there is very little difference between drawings and paintings.(11) Figure 2 compares prices obtained for all Symbolist artists and British (mainly Pre-Raphaelites) artists only; as can be seen, there is almost no difference and this could be expected, to some extent, since a larger part of sales (some 60%) are by British artists.

Table 1 displays the number of works sold during the 120 years under review by each artist, as well as relative prices (given that the price of Millais is set at 100) during two different sub-periods: during the first half of the century (1915-1950), the Symbolists are almost forgotten; in 1980-1992, they are back in fashion. As can be seen, some of the artists who are celebrated today, like Klimt, Khnopff and Munch, were not even sold at auction during the early years of this century; Burne-Jones, Moreau, Redon and Rossetti gained in comparison with Millais, while the relative price of Puvis de Chavannes and Watts declined. The last column of the table shows the price ratio of watercolour painting to oil painting: watercolours by Khnopff, Moreau and Redon fetch higher prices than their paintings; this can be explained by the fact that many Symbolist artists have used watercolours more often than oil and that, eventually, Symbolism may be associated more with the former medium that with the latter.


Figure 3 compares prices fetched by Impressionists and their followers(12) with those obtained by the Symbolists. Both currents were born at about the same time, but while Symbolism went out of fashion after 1900, with prices dropping to one hundredth of what they were during the late nineteenth century, prices for Impressionism grew very rapidly after 1900 and remained more or less stable until 1950; while a "basket" of Impressionist paintings rose from 100 in 1895 to 400 in 1950.

As is illustrated in Figure 4, the recovery of prices after 1960 was fed by an increasing number of exhibitions and publications, which took place some time before prices started to increase. And, as has often been noted, "each generation of scholars alters our vision of history. Museum curators and historians can rediscover and popularise previously neglected periods and schools. By writing, lecturing and organising exhibitions they alert non-professionals eager to be on the cutting edge, and perhaps also to turn a handsome profit".(13)

While all forms of art see their prices vary in time, some, like Symbolism, are subject to much wider fluctuations. The absence of an official "Symbolist school", and the fact that the artists, spread all over Europe, fed a "flou artistique", often makes it difficult to identify Symbolism, because it is an atmosphere or a state of mind and lacks visual homogeneity. This makes it more difficult to understand and more subject to changes in tastes than many other currents, such as French art from the eighteenth century, which plays, even nowadays, the role of a benchmark for "good taste".


1: Dutch painters seem to have produced some 10 million paintings during the seventeenth century; at most 50,000 (i.e., less than half a percent of the production) are known today. See G. Schwartz, "Figures and figuration: quantitative research on Dutch painting of the seventeenth century", paper presented at the Conference on cultural Economics, Witten, 25-27 August 1994.

2: See e.g. F. Haskell, "Rediscoveries in Art. Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France", Phaidon Press, Oxford, 1976.

3: Most painters switched from one style to another; Munch, for instance, switched to Symbolism in 1893, and became Expressionist after 1902; therefore, only works produced between 1893 and 1902 are taken into account here. Redon, on the other hand, remained faithful to Symbolism during his whole life, but he also painted "Flowers", which are closer to Impressionism, and are therefore, excluded.

4: 1870-1961, with the exception of the years 1872-74, 1895, and 1939-46.

5: Sotheby's library was bombed during World War II and their sales catalogues were not available; Sotheby's is of lesser importance here, since the house mainly specialised in books until 1920 and became known for selling paintings only after World War II.

6: For the period 1870-1954, we make use of the price index constructed by E.H. Phelps-Brown and S.V. Hopkins, "Seven centuries of the prices of consumables", "Economica" 23 (1956), 296-314; after 1954, we use IMF price statistics.

7: For further details, see V. Ginsburgh and N. Schwed, "Price trends for Old Master drawings, The Art Newspaper, September 1992 and N. Buelens and V. Ginsburgh, "Revisiting Baumol's Art as floating crap game", "European Economic Review" 27 (1993), 1351-1371.

8: See G. Reitlinger, "The Economics of Taste", vol. 1, London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1961, p. 147.

9: Moreau in 1960 at the Louvre; Moreau, Redon and Bresdin in 1961-62 in New York and Chicago; Moreau in 1964-65 in Tokyo; Munch in 1965 at the Guggenheim, etc.

10: "Symbolists" in 1970 at the Piccadilly Gallery in London, "Il sacro e il profano nell'arte dei Simbolisti" in 1968 at the Galleria Civics d'Arte Moderna in Turin, "French Symbolist painters" in 1972 at the Hayward Gallery in London, etc.

11: "The number of watercolours is not sufficient to draw firm conclusions.

12: See Buelens and Ginsburgh, op. cit.

13: R. Moulin, A typology of collectors, "The French Art Market", A Sociological View, 1987.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Gloomy art, gloomy pieces'