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Art and Antiques Auctions—A Brief History

by Sandra Lee Stuart (07/20/08).

While art has been around since the dawn of humankind, buying and selling art and antiques at auctions is a phenomenon only a few centuries old.

Eighteenth-century auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams and Phillips attracted a royal and privileged clientele. They bought art not only for its aesthetic appeal but because it symbolized their prestige and power.

Acquiring art as an investment is a recent development. Auctions became a bit more democratic, welcoming millionaires from all nations into the fold.

Beginning in the 1960s, the major auction houses expanded their offices worldwide. Art auctions became glamorous events punctuated by celebrity sightings, much like fashion shows, with record sales making electrifying headlines. Now, the monetary value of a piece competes with its artistic merit.

The 1980s brought the first public art spree by Japanese and American tycoons—Sotheby’s alone sold $1.1 billion worth of Impressionist and modern art in the decade.

Sotheby’s was purchased in 1983 by Alfred Taubman, a U.S. retailing magnate who also owned A&W root beer, among other brands. “There is more similarity in a precious painting by Degas and a frosted mug of root beer than you ever thought possible,” he said at the time.

In 1987, the Tokyo stock market crashed in what became a global economic recession. Suddenly, a lot of people were left holding a lot of expensive art with few takers. The public lost faith, and art as an investment vehicle received a knock.

The art market revived into the 1990s, rising again with the dot.com boom and other forces. Around this time a spicy scandal tainted the refined art world when U.S. federal prosecutors charged Taubman with fixing commissions with Christie’s in order to control 90% of the art market and end their costly rivalry. Taubman was fined $7.5 million and imprisoned for nearly a year. His family divested itself from Sotheby’s in 2005. Christie’s and Sotheby’s executives cooperated with investigators, and Christie’s chairman, Sir Anthony Tennant avoided extradition, but he also fell from grace.

The new millennium has seen new records for art prices among collectors flush with oil and technology profits. China, especially, has become a dynamic source both of contemporary artists and collectors, but there are new tycoons in India, Mexico, Brazil and other nations who are becoming successful bidders, too.

Meanwhile the pool of art buyers continues to expand far beyond a handful of royal courts and noble families. The Internet is democratizing the art market. eBay’s success forced auction houses to establish Web sites and encouraged the growth of online sites such as WorthPoint, SaffronArt, Kovels, Ruby Lane and GoAntiques. Anyone with an Internet connection now can buy and sell art.

Some other auction houses are:

Rosebery’s

Woolley and Wallis

Tennants

Lyon & Turnbull

Sworders

Bloomsbury Auctions , founded 1983, deals in books and works on paper

Waddington’s , a Canadian auction house since 1850

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