How do dealers price contemporary art in a world where objective criteria seem absent? Talking Prices is the first book to examine this question from a sociological perspective. On the basis of a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including interviews with art dealers in New York and Amsterdam, Olav Velthuis shows how contemporary art galleries juggle the contradictory logics of art and economics. In doing so, they rely on a highly ritualized business repertoire. For instance, a sharp distinction between a gallery's museumlike front space and its businesslike back space safeguards the separation of art from commerce.
Velthuis shows that prices, far from being abstract numbers, convey rich meanings to trading partners that extend well beyond the works of art. A high price may indicate not only the quality of a work but also the identity of collectors who bought it before the artist's reputation was established. Such meanings are far from unequivocal. For some, a high price may be a symbol of status; for others, it is a symbol of fraud.
Whereas sociological thought has long viewed prices as reducing qualities to quantities, this pathbreaking and engagingly written book reveals the rich world behind these numerical values. Art dealers distinguish different types of prices and attach moral significance to them. Thus the price mechanism constitutes a symbolic system akin to language.
"The book is an excellent, readable and thorough analysis of how prices are set in the contemporary art market."--The Art Newspaper
"[Talking Prices] provides an excellent analysis of the tension between art and commerce that characterizes the art world."--Stuart Plattner, American Anthropologist
"Velthuis' essay is absorbing because it challenges our understanding of economics, culture, and society. Its narrative is stylish and refined; at times the discourse shows craftsmanship and attention to details, like a still-life of Pieter Claesz; at other times it is bold and sophisticated, like a painting of Karel Appel, or Kees Van Dongen. It is an essay definitely worth reading."--Calin Valsan, Journal of Cultural Economics
"Olav Velthuis has built a graceful, sturdy bridge across a torrent: the turbulent flow of art markets. On one side we have the supposition that art and money follow incompatible principles; on the other, the claim that markets reduce all commodities to creatures of supply and demand. By looking closely at the actual culture and social connections of art markets in New York and Amsterdam, he arrives at insight after insight into a meaning-drenched form of commerce, and by extension into the place of meanings in markets of every kind. This bridge stands firm."--Viviana A. Zelizer, author of The Purchase of Intimacy and The Social Meaning of Money
Table of Contents:
List of Tables and Graphs ix
Chapter 1: The Architecture of the Art Market 21
Chapter 2: Exchanging Meaning 53
Chapter 3: Promoters versus Parasites 77
Chapter 4: Determinants of Prices 97
Chapter 5: The Art of Pricing 116
Chapter 6: Stories of Prices 132
Chapter 7: Symbolic Meanings of Prices 158
Chapter 8: Conclusion 179
Appendix A: Interview Questionnaire 191
Appendix B: Description of Interview Sample 194
Appendix C: Record Prices for Art 197
Appendix D: Multilevel Analysis of Prices for Art 199