Chagall v Cezanne

I was a panelist yesterday discussing art markets, at the Christie’s education center. Great group of people, and really lovely of Marisa Kayyem to invite me. One of the more interesting moments was in our discussion of the primacy of market prices as a measure of value for a work. I had put up a slide noting that ‘centrality’ was the commensurative measure for fine art: that pieces that were closer to the ‘center’ of categories would be considered more important, and hence would command higher values. Someone rightly asked me about the fact that sometimes ‘centrality’ for experts (i.e., art historians) differed from ‘centrality’ for the public; and shouldn’t I clarify the distinction between market value and cultural value.

This led to a surprisingly common discussion – the distinction between Marc Chagall and Paul Cézanne. Chagall is well-liked by the public, and when his pictures comes to auction, they sell well. All the time. Cézanne is considered ‘challenging’, and his art tends to command less high prices. Of course there are large numbers of variables here: the quality of pieces that come to auction, private sales, number of works produced. And yet, Cézanne is considered much, much more central by experts. Chagall is more highly valued by the market.

I am not very articulate about it yet, but there is a funny way that art world participants both completely believe and completely reject ‘the market’ as a measure of value. Following art sales is like tracking baseball scores for many (most?) people; seeing Mark Rothko’s paintings sell for records after such a lull in sales in the 80s, or the rise of Lucien Freud are tracked carefully by participants in the high-end art world. Still, Chagall v. Cézanne – the market sometimes rewards popularity more than important artists. Those former market markers are to be tracked, the latter to be dismissed.

So I (snarkily) suggested that if you believe the market, then, well, really believe it – if prices for Chagall are higher than Cézanne, maybe art historians are simply wrong. Uproar (well, art historians don’t really uproar – more like polite murmur). But what’s interesting is this selective use of the market as an indicator of value when it confirms expert valuations, a sort-of belief in it when it changes somewhat expert valuations (let’s reconsider Klimt!), and a disbelief in it when it contradicts expert valuations. I don’t yet have a complete grasp on why this is, the circumstances under which it operates, or how it really works.

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