“The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive” ‒ Robert Hughes
In 2017, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi sold for a record $450.3m, making it the most expensive painting ever sold and also a factual meme that people around the world can easily recall and repeat.
As Gavin Turk might point out (and Damien Hirst tacitly implies), people’s fascination with the value of art is a reflection of their judgement of their own judgement. How closely their appraisal of a work’s value matches industry consensus via an auction validates them on a personal level. Taste being a broad signifier of individual position, whether or not the worth of a work harmonises our personal convictions is only relevant in the context of our lives. Whether we see an old master or Banksy being worth what it sells for at auction becomes a statement on who we are.
‘Earn your worth, negotiate your value’ is a shop-worn HR cliché, however it reflects a binary relationship at the heart of any exchange, especially of non-functional art. For an enthusiastic collector, a sense of value creates a functional need which informs how much they are willing to pay, at which point they’ll start to be interested in how much the piece is worth. The work could then become either a decadent fling or a canny investment, depending on the appraisals of the market.
Value in art is based around a set of nebulous socially derived intersections: novelty, influence and (elite) appeal. Worth in art is seemingly more transparent, existing as a form of marketplace-situatedness, defined by sales history, related works, market projections and inflation. The layman quickly understands that while the appreciation of value is open to everyone, the appreciation of worth is the province of a closed cadre of people whose financial decisions about their collections inform a work’s continuing worth and thus its lasting value.
The power held by esteemed collections is that over time fewer paragraphs tend to talk about works that aren’t influentially collected (either by respected collectors, galleries or more famous artists), conspicuously resold or displaying some inspirational innovation. However, with a broadening base of artistic collection this might be about to change.
Zohar Elhanani is the CEO of MutualArt, an online art resource that claims over 500,000 members, who receive sales and exhibition information on 300,000 artists and 17,000 venues. The aim of the resource is to make widely available sales figures for artists and works in an easily digestible manner. Increasingly, a broader cohort of collectors are purchasing art; how this will affect the existing system in terms of both value and worth remains to be seen. Emblematic of MutualArt’s vision is Elhanani’s own observations on collecting as well as his background in blue-chip business.
“I’ve been with MutualArt since mid 2017, so I’m relatively new. My background has been fairly broad in terms of global start-ups and I am a collector, so the relationship between collecting/investing and transparent information combined with technology was very interesting to me. The opportunity I saw was that you can take a market that is lacking in information, or is asymmetrical in terms of who has the information, and provide tools and technologies that mitigate the uneveness, allowing for better decision-making. Anyone who has amassed a large collection eventually has to look at it at least in part as an investment; there will come a time when you have to liquidate your collection. So it’s a sensible approach to also look at the economics and the trends and everything that goes along with the actual purchase decision.
“At MutualArt we cover the gamut of the users from enthusiast to professional; we have a real broad base of users. Of course, it rotates with time; the enthusiast becomes the collector, who then becomes an investor, so we maintain a broad relationship throughout their development. We handle the entirety of the dialogue with our users.
“The initial goal was to gather the data and make sure that it’s presented in a very personalised manner. Our primary role was (and still is) to gather information in an accurate and timely fashion. For example, if there’s an upcoming exhibition that covers artists that you like, we would obviously need to publish the relevant information in advance of the exhibition happening (the same applies to auctions and even articles), because you need to have a consolidated view of current data. This is what our moderation is focused on, taking in the data and making sure that it’s correct—auction houses do make mistakes—and we have a way to present it in the most accurate aggregated fashion.
“How it works is that once we have the data the next step is to deliver the analytics that are driven by that data based on the different user patterns we see. For a professional, it’s drilling down into an artist, finding comparable works and seeing what they went for at another auction, and whether that is due to seasonality and overall trends and what external factors may have influenced previous prices. For a market, there is a whole raft of things to take into account: genre, individual auction sales analysis, post-sale analysis, and more. We look at the entirety of the data and we try to prioritise what’s important and present it consistently. At that stage we have a mechanism where the user defines for us which artists they’d like to follow and we push information to them, sending ongoing alerts based on what they want to hear about. It could be a number of things: upcoming exhibitions, auctions, specific artists or movements. We also have an app that gives a location-based service about where an exhibition is taking place. Plus you get all the information pertaining to the artists you follow in whatever city you’re in. The mobile side of what we offer is something that we’re developing quite strongly, given that art is something you generally see when out and about. The website is great, but people need that information at hand.”
Is it possible to deliberately skew your analysis by submitting incorrect data?
The data is directly sourced from the auction houses and exhibitions—we don’t use third parties—so in theory…