Art historians look beyond the big buyers of 18th century paintings
By Robin A. Smith
Of the billions of dollars of art bought and sold at auctions in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong this spring, most of the buzz has centered on the highest-priced works. But these are a tiny fraction of what’s up for sale.
An analysis of thousands of painting sales in 18th century Paris looks beyond the top sellers to find out why people were willing to pay more for some works of art than others.
It turns out that then, as now, marketing meant a lot.
“Previous research has tended to focus on the tastes of the most prominent collectors as if they applied to all buyers,” said Duke University art historian Sandra van Ginhoven. “But looking only at the highest-priced paintings does not reveal the full scope of the market. We wanted to go beyond the big names.”
Van Ginhoven and doctoral student Hilary Cronheim of the Duke Art, Law and Markets Initiative analyzed auction catalogs and sales records from art auctions held in Paris over 16 years from 1764 to 1780, compiling a dataset of nearly 3400 paintings.
Unlike the glossy sales catalogs produced by auction houses today, the auction catalogs of the 1700s included text descriptions but no images of the art for sale. Potential buyers had to rely on the descriptions alone, sight unseen, much like a restaurant menu.
By scouring the descriptions of each painting in the sales catalogs that dealers distributed to potential buyers in the months before the auctions, the researchers were able to characterize each painting along 30 traits, including school, dealer and subject matter.
Dutch and Flemish paintings commanded some of the steepest prices, bringing in 50 percent more on average than other paintings.
Among the most coveted works was a 1776 painting by top-selling Flemish artist David Teniers, whose “Prodigal Son” fetched a whopping 29,000 French livres.
At the other end of the spectrum were works like a 1768 painting of three rabbits on canvas by an unknown French artist, which was a bargain at one livre, or roughly the price of a gallon of wine.
“The prices varied a lot,” van Ginhoven said.
While the average sale price was 891 livres, half of the paintings auctioned in Paris in the late 1700s sold for 150 livres or less.
By including these less expensive works by little-known or underappreciated artists and the people who bought them, the researchers were able to get a more complete picture of what drove sales.
Font size mattered, for one.
Using a supersized font in the catalog descriptions to draw attention to certain aspects of a painting, such as its polished finish, boosted sales. Buyers were willing to pay almost six times more for a painting described in big, bold lettering than one described in a normal font.
“It was a very conscious decision on the part of the dealers,” van Ginhoven said. “One dealer started doing it and then it spread to other dealers because it was such a successful marketing strategy.”
Including information about the chain of ownership brought higher bids, too. The tactic was new at the time. Dealers soon discovered that buyers were willing to pay twice as much for a painting when they knew who the previous owner was.
“It meant the painting had already been vetted,” van Ginhoven said.
The researchers shared their findings at the 2015 College Art Association conference in New York in a session titled, “The Meaning of Prices in the History of Art.”