ANONYMOUS ART AT AUCTION: LOOKING AT THE “UNBRANDED” AND THE “OUTDATED”

Anne-Sophie V. Radermecker

For once, roles are reversed and this is art historians talking cultural economics. The goal of this book, at the intersection of both disciplines, is to show art historians the potential of economic tools to understand how art is perceived, valued, and consumed over time. 

The dialogue between art history and economics has long-standing roots. Pioneering works by Michael Montias, Neil De Marchi and Hans Van Miegroet, Victor Ginsburgh and Sheila Weyers have significantly enlarged the scope of traditional art history by considering the quantification of empirical data and anticipating, what later would be, an integral part of the “digital humanities.” Recently, Diana Greenwald’s cutting-edge book Painting by Numbers has thrown a new stone in the water by combining 19th-century art history with data analysis, constituting another major contribution to this hybrid area of research. Usually acclaimed by cultural economists, often disputed amongst art historians, the quantitative approach of art ultimately challenges the traditional model of art history and forces scholars to get out of their comfort zone, both epistemologically and methodologically. This is what makes quantitative art history a fascinating –but challenging– academic field, where contrasted opinions constantly agree and disagree. 

The title of this short article is deliberately provocative. In an art world where strong brand names are a signal of commercial achievement, to consider the works of artists whose names did not pass the test of time is a rather unusual focus. The quality of these (meta)-credence goods, also known as “indeterminate” works, is particularly difficult to assess since the signals usually valued by buyers, such as authorship, signature, provenance, exhibition history, publications, are rarely available. Similarly, what we consider “outdated” in art is somewhat subjective. Where one may perceive 15th- and 16th-century Flemish paintings as old and “dusty” works, some others may view them as valuable material witnesses of a crucial turning point in history –the Early modern period,– during which the free art market emancipated. 

With Anonymous Art at Auction, my goal was not to provide a traditional book in art history nor cultural economics, but to position it at the crossroad of both disciplines. Based on a dataset of more than 13,000 auction sales results, I investigated sixty decades of market reception of paintings produced by anonymous Flemish artists, from the mid-1940 to 2015. Rather than considering art prices for investment purposes, my study aimed to better understand contemporary buyers’ willingness to pay for paintings of unknown or uncertain authorship, and what parameters influence price formation mechanisms in this niche segment. After two chapters offering some context and methodological benchmarks –with a special focus on the hedonic pricing model,– the remaining parts offer an in-depth analysis of the three main branding strategies encountered in this market segment: indirect names, provisional names, and spatiotemporal designations. The main finding is that not only do historical names matter in the art market but so do all other alternative identification strategies used by art historians and art market players to label indeterminate paintings. Indirect names, provisional names, and spatiotemporal designations function as labels, and, at times, even substitutes for names, that simulate identities and create narratives around the artworks being offered for sale. These identification strategies reduce uncertainty and information asymmetry about an artist’s identity and/or the origins of the work, and contribute significantly to their increased economic value, depending on the information they convey. From a market perspective, any artwork may be therefore viewed as an aggregate of information that is sometimes more valued than the physical object itself and its intrinsic qualities.

Through this contribution, my primary objective was to show art historians the extent to which art price data can reflect our relationship to art, and most importantly, how the value we attach to it, both symbolic and monetary, is nothing but a cultural construct. Cultural economists will also find interest in the book for it is concerned with an overlooked market segment, highlights alternative price determinants, and addresses the issue of art branding. Most importantly, I wanted to raise the reader’s attention to the fact that the art world, and the art market in particular, is not only about blue-chip artists. Artworks that do not meet the standards of taste at instant t, or that do not perfectly fit the category of “fine arts,” are inherently part of our visual culture. In this respect, anonymous paintings, and more broadly antiques, decorative arts, and crafts are valuable objects that need to be the focus of art historians, cultural economists, and museum curators to overcome long-standing stereotypes. Neglecting their cultural value in the present day may lead to future survival bias, comparable to those commonly found in art history. More broadly, the book is an invitation to put in perspective the economic value of art and to rehabilitate the work of thousands of unknown artists who continue to live through the art trade. From a contemporary perspective, it also compels us to appreciate the work of artists bearing a name but who do not benefit (yet) from institutional and market recognition. These artists are, however, active players of the art ecosystem. Without an increased attention paid to their works, they are likely to fall, in the forthcoming decades and centuries, within the long depreciated but how fascinating category of “anonymous” artists.

About the publication:

Radermecker, A. V. (25 May. 2021). Anonymous Art at Auction. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/9789004460201

About the author:

Anne-Sophie V. Radermecker, is a FNRS Research Associate/Lecturer in Cultural Management at the Université libre de Bruxelles (BE)

One thought on “ANONYMOUS ART AT AUCTION: LOOKING AT THE “UNBRANDED” AND THE “OUTDATED”

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  1. Definitely an interesting read. I’m curious to understand what parameters are used to set prices for these anonymous pieces of art, given the lack of signs such as authorship, provenance and history….

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