Art market

This book by a leading London dealer analyses the market from 1970 to the present

Christopher Wood's "The great art boom"


The slightly lugubrious face of Christopher Wood is one of the most familiar on the British art scene over the past twenty years. Mr Wood started out in time honoured fashion on the front counter at Christie’s, before moving into the picture departments, where he acquired his early training and became a director of nineteenth-century pictures. He has also found time to put pen to his specialist field including 'The dictionary of Victorian artists' and 'Olympian dreamers', publications which undoubtedly contributed to the revival of interest in Victorian art, in which Mr Wood has played a key role. An excellent TV series called “Painters to the people” made in 1990 brought his name to a wider audience. Having been associated, perhaps less happily, with the Mallett antique dealership, he is now back working on his own as a dealer and consultant.

His latest venture is, as he himself acknowledges, a continuation of, and a tribute to, another man’s book. Gerald Reitlinger’s 'The Economics of Taste' was published in 1961 and is a magisterial, two-volume study of the art market from 1760 to 1960. The book offered a lengthy historical analysis followed by an analysis of prices made by around 300 artists at auction. Just before his death Reitlinger produced another book covering the years 1960-70.

Christopher Wood takes over where Reitlinger left off and, therefore, has only twenty-seven years to deal with. Mr Wood states that he has kept to Reitlinger’s method—a historical essay followed by an analysis of top prices by the highest selling artists—but his book is a mere 302 pages, of which twenty-six are taken up by the introductory essay and the rest by lists of prices with short commentaries on each artist.

In fact, this book is really rather a different one to Reitlinger’s: shorter on comment, longer on fact, and less ambitious in its aims. It is also a collaboration, as the author fully acknowledges, between himself and his publishers, the British company called Art Sales Index Ltd, founded in 1968 and one of the main suppliers of art market data worldwide. Art Sales Index (ASI) enters around 120,000 auction prices for fine art every year into its system, and this data is available to members of the public in book form or on-line. The company also produces graphs analysing different sectors of the market by subject and nationality. It is an invaluable service with a high reputation for accuracy.

Drawing on the data available from ASI, Christopher Wood divides his introductory essay into short sections devoted to the fields of fine art which have been most important to the market over the period covered by his book; for example, Old Masters, Impressionists and Latin American. He analyses observable price trends (helpfully illustrated with a graph for each subject), notes top prices and suggests areas where there is still room for growth.

His wide experience of the art market certainly makes him a shrewd commentator, and some of his predictions for rises in prices have already been born out in the six months since the book was completed: German Expressionists artists have gone up drastically as a result of Sotheby’s London sale last June, while more offbeat artists like Norman Rockwell have beaten their previous records, just as Mr Wood suggested they might.

The second part of the book is really a selection of highlights of top prices made by the top-selling 427 artists worldwide, drawn from ASI’s records. As with all printed price guides, there is a built-in obsolescence, as quite a number had already made higher prices in the second half of 1997.

More interesting are Mr Wood’s comments about the artists, some of which are a little surprising. For Rembrandt, for example, he states: “How are the mighty fallen!” and goes on to say that there is now “virtually no market for his paintings.”

His premise, however, seems rather confused, as elsewhere, he rightly draws attention to the huge prices made for Old Master drawings by artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo in recent years, and notes that if paintings by these artists were ever to come to auction, they would probably make vast sums. The rarity of top works by artists such as Rembrandt and Velazquez seems much more relevant to their recent performance at auction than the tastes of nouveaux-riche Impressionist art collectors and there is every reason to believe that if one day, the National Gallery in London were obliged to sell off its Rembrandts, they would leave “Dr Gachet” standing, contrary to what Mr Wood seems to be suggesting.

Mr Wood is no supporter of modern art and some of the most enjoyable passages in the book are those in which he allows his personal prejudices to creep in. Discussing the market for modern British art, he notes high prices for Auerbach, Kitaj and Hodgkin, but finds it “inexplicable that all these artists should at the moment be making more than Sickert!”

Such comments brighten up what is, it must be said, a rather dry book which is really not much more than an extended analysis of twenty-seven years of auction prices to which a rather catchy title has been appended. The book is certainly not a narrative account of the boom which took the art market to new levels, particularly in the frantic years of 1989-91. The author makes no effort to explain why certain areas suddenly did extremely well, then just as suddenly failed (the Swedish and Japanese markets, for example), nor is there any mention throughout the entire book of individual collectors’ names, and just a few references to museums.

In several places Mr Wood notes that he is rather doubtful about Reitlinger’s attempts to give equivalent contemporary prices for the great art purchases of the past, and perhaps on grounds of accuracy he is right. However, his book as it stands gives no sense of fine art as being just one commodity in the high-spending world of the late twentieth-century, and even a few references to other top collecting fields such as jewellery or Chinese art would have given the reader more of an idea of just how much collectors have been prepared to spend over the past three decades.

Mr. Woods’s book is useful, precise and, as far as it goes, interesting. But it could have been a lot more.

Christopher Wood, The Great Art Boom 1970-1997, (Art Sales Index, Weybridge, 1997), 302 pp, 13 b/w ills, 76 col. ills, £65 $120 (hb only) ISBN 0903872587

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The great art boom'