Art Market 101

Beginning an art collection can be a daunting task and with so much artwork to choose from at such a wide range of price points, it can be difficult to know where to begin. New collectors are often intimidated by the opacity of the art market, and for good reason - the machinations of the market from the moment an artwork is made are intricate and complex. Regardless of whether one is interested in collecting emerging artists or blue-chip masterpieces, an understanding of the art market and its players is essential. We’ve put together a brief overview of some basic terms to help you get started.

Medium or Media

The medium or media refers to the materials that the artist used to make the artwork. There are all kinds of media, from the more traditional oil paint or charcoal, to more modern materials, such as film and other digital tools. 

 

Series

Throughout their careers, artists sometimes focus on particular themes and produce a number of works that are all related to a single concept. An artist can create a distinct series over a short period of time or may return to a specific series over the span of their career. One of the most iconic series is Andy Warhol’s celebrity portraits, through which he explored the concept of celebrity and painted images of stars like Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Elvis Presley.

Original Work

An original work means an artist has made only one iteration of a piece. There is only one example of the work in the world and it is therefore unique. One of the most celebrated artworks in the world - The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci - is an original artwork. 

 

Edition

An editioned work means the artist made several iterations of a specific artwork. Editions, which are also referred to as multiples, can range in size from very small (3-10) to very large (250-500). By leveraging techniques such as printmaking or photography, artists can easily make multiples of the same piece. Editions are usually less expensive than original artworks and they are a great entrypoint for new collectors who are still developing their tastes.

Primary Market

The primary market refers to artwork that is being sold for the first time. Certain galleries are known as primary market galleries: they have a roster of represented artists and they showcase work coming directly from their artists’ studios. However, with the development of technology and platforms such as Instagram, artists have been able to market their work online and reach audiences worldwide, making it much easier for them to sell their work independent of a gallery. Despite this, gallery representation is still highly desirable. Primary galleries do much more than just sell artwork; they invest a lot into building their artists’ careers by funding exhibitions and publications, and fostering relationships for their artists with important collectors and museum curators.

Secondary Market

The secondary market refers to any artwork that is being resold, most frequently through auction houses. There are also galleries that operate exclusively in the secondary market, and primary market galleries can become involved in reselling artwork by their artists to try to place them in a prestigious collection or museum. 

 

Auction House

Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s work year round to continuously put together auctions that are open to the public. For the most part, artwork selling at auction is in the secondary market. One famous exception took place in 2008 when the contemporary artist Damien Hirst made an exclusive deal with Sotheby’s to sell more than one hundred works coming directly from his studio. Because the sale results of auctions are made public, auctions are extensively curated by auction house specialists to ensure as high a sell-through rate as possible. If an artwork does not sell at auction, the artist’s market can be negatively affected and prices may (either temporarily or permanently) go down.

Left image from Public Radio International. Right image from Widewalls.

Art Fair

Art fairs are, to put it rather crudely, the trade shows of the art industry. There are hundreds of art fairs that take place on an annual cycle all over the world, and can range from the very prestigious, such as Art Basel or Frieze, to the more emerging, such as the Affordable Art Fair. Galleries and institutions purchase booths and strategically fill them with artwork that they want to promote. Art fairs are a tremendous opportunity for galleries to liaise with new buyers and for collectors to discover international artists. 

 

Condition Report

A condition report is an assessment of an artwork object’s condition. Maintaining the condition of an artwork is incredibly important for it is a direct indicator of the value of the piece. 

 

Provenance

The provenance of an artwork is the ownership history of the piece. In the high-end, secondary art market, provenance can be a major determining factor of the artwork’s authenticity and commercial value. Large gaps in an artwork’s provenance are dubious and in some cases may indicate that the work is a forgery.

We hope this primer was informative and of use! What else would you like to learn about the art market or art in general? If you have suggestions for other topics related to the art market, art history, or collecting, contact us today.