Who decides that it is art? Who decides what it is worth? These two simple questions were put to me the other day as news services and the printed media splashed headlines ‘Giacometti, the new Picasso’ across their pages and the airwaves.
But the answer is not so simple. The machinations of the world of art are baffling even for those working in the field. Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World engagingly tries to make sense of the inner workings of the art world and its mysterious ways. But even her thoroughly researched, intelligently written and entertaining study of the dynamics of the international art market remains unresolved, except to prove that the art universe is by no means cut and dry.
As Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I or L’Homme qui marche I (1960) marched into the record books Artprice.com, the art market specialists, reported that the human-size bronze was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on 3 February 2010 for £54 million (£65 million premium included or $104 million). This work is now the most expensive work of art ever auctioned. Giacometti (1901 – 1966) has superseded even Pablo Picasso’s (1881 – 1973) Garcon a la Pipe (1905) that sold for a record £ 51.8 million ($93 million) on 5 May 2004 at Sotheby’s.
Personal finance and art investment sites went into overdrive to illustrate just how lucrative an investment in a ‘good’ work of art can be. But even the so-called experts can get it far wrong when it comes to the potential economic value of a work of art. Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate for Giacometti’s bronze ranged from £12 million to £18 million. And the price realised for Walking Man I, ‘a wiry man in mid stride’  was more than three times the record set for Giacometti’s Standing Woman II (1959/60) sold at Christie’s in New York in May 2008.
Giacometti is considered a modern master for his depictions of haunted looking ‘Everymen’. But what a good investment a Giacometti work of art would’ve been if, as Artprice.com has calculated, for every €100 invested in a work by Giacometti in 1988 the average value in January 2010 would be €490. Not a bad return by any standards – if only one could accurately predict the art market!
So how does a work of art become consecrated into the super league? With few exceptions it is a long, arduous and unpredictable process. It may begin with a new talent being recognised, nurtured and developed. Only then could a gallery take a view that an artist’s work be shown to the gallery going public. The response to the artist’s work by the art community and art critics will then play an important role in determining the potential of the artist, critically and financially. A critically acclaimed artist may even be invited to show at a prestigious non-commercial gallery. From the studio to the gallery space, art dealers and collectors may begin to nibble and the artwork will shift from the primary art market to the secondary market.
It may take many years, decades or even centuries before a very select few artists’ works make headlines for achieving record prices at auction. Add to the mix art trends and fashions, not to mention economic cycles. The recent economic boom sent the art market off the charts before the melt-down and the inevitable lean years. But it would appear that the über rich do not feel the pinch quite as much as the rest of the world and that the international art market held up relatively well.
An artist’s place in art historical and financial terms is not remotely an exact science. Today Biennales, art fairs, private galleries, art prizes, catalogues and publications about artists all have a role to play in shaping the careers of artists – and the perceived value of their work – and each of these have their own drivers, rules and dynamics.
As Sarah Thornton observes in Seven Days in the Art World, the auction house is the only place where all the grey areas in the art world converge into black and white, a price, a monitory value.
So who decides that it is art and what it is worth? It is an intriguing and complex process that will one day, maybe, elevate an artist’s work into the record books as the auctioneer’s hammer crashes down. Sold, to the highest bidder!
‘Even if the people here tonight were initially lured into the auction room by a love of art, they find themselves participating in a spectacle where the dollar value of the work has virtually slaughtered its other meanings’, Sarah Thornton.
 Thornton, S. (2009). Seven days in the art world London and New York (pg. 39) W.W. Norton & Company
 Thornton, S. (2009). Seven days in the art world. New York and London. W. W. Norton & Company
 Vogel, Carol. February 3, 2010 New York Times – newyorktimes.com accessed 28.02.10