The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of the Market for Contemporary Art

Robert Jensen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This essay demonstrates how market prices for contemporary art flourished in the late 19th century, fell after 1900, and rose again in the 1960s. This discovery stands in contrast to previous 20th-century art market studies, which have depended on the sales prices achieved by modernist and avant-garde artists. The artists who were financially successful before 1900 have been dismissed as commercial or academic. Arguing for the importance of high-end sales, the paper mostly relies on the primary and secondary premium sales data belonging to the Paris gallery founded Adolphe Goupil and the New York gallery founded by Michael Knoedler. Using CPI to convert prices over time, premium sales prices for Old Master, Near Contemporary, and Contemporary Art are compared over a ninety-year period, from the 1860s to the end of the 1950s. Among the discoveries yielded by this data is how close prices for contemporary art matched prices for Old Master painting until the very end of the 19th century. The data also indicates that many more contemporary artists benefited from high prices during the 19th century than later living artists achieved until late in the 20th century. What appears to have contributed to the rise and fall and rise again of contemporary art prices is the corresponding rise and fall and rise again of interest in contemporary art by superrich collectors. An international market fueled by such collectors appears have been essential in creating high prices for contemporary art.
Original languageAmerican English
JournalJournal of Cultural Economics
StatePublished - Jul 2023


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