Have you ever wondered how an art market even came into existence? I’ll tell you. And I will start from the very beginning: from the emergence of the art object to the birth of auctions, patrons, artists, academies and professional art dealers.
Sit tight boys and girls, your history lesson is about to start in two parts (so that I don’t saturate your mind with way too much fascinating information).
Let’s start off with a fun fact: the Venus of Berekhat Ram (700,000 – 290,000 BC) is considered to be the first art object ever in the history of art objects. It was actually discovered not long ago in the Golan Heights by an archeologist in 1981. It is essentially a small rock that looks like a pregnant woman and it is believed that it was created during the Stone Age most probably by Homo Erectus (WOW!). But there’s no evidence of any trend of cultural collecting in societies at this point in time so we can assume that artists were not competing with each other. As a result this means that there was no change in the value of their work.
Fast-forward to the Bronze Age, 2000 BC – the birth of money comes about and with it – trouble as always when $$$ is involved. Art became a commodity with an exchange value for the first time ever. Objects like terracotta vases, trinkets and golden cups all of a sudden became valuable gifts, and by the 6th century BC, artists were starting to sign their work (egocentric creatures). A spirit of competition between them emerged as they began to be respected by the higher class who would become their patrons.
The first signature ever on an artwork was that of Sophilos who boasted on one of his vases, “Sophilos painted on me”, in Greek of course. During this time, prices were controlled by the amount of time that the artist spent creating the artwork – the more time they spent working on it, the more the work cost. Imagine if that were the case in contemporary art today. #LOL
A couple of hundred centuries later, right after the death of Alexander the Great, the idea of collecting art for aesthetic reasons had developed. Naturally it was being collected for its monetary value and not for utility purposes anymore. And as Alexander’s kingdom was split up, the biggest copy cats in history rose to the top: the Romans.
Then, a Roman general by the name of Lucius Mummius, renown for his lack of culture and education, conquered several Greek cities, looted all of their art and took it back to Rome where the Romans were fascinated by it. This is when auctions were born when the Greek works were being sold off to the highest bidder.
Are you keeping up?
I suppose that in the spirit of emulation, the Romans began to copy the Greek bronze sculptures in marble. Today only the Roman replicas survive as all the bronze originals were melted during the Barbarian Invasion (sniff sniff). After the fall of the great empire of Rome in the 4th century AD, Christianity took over and well, that’s a whole other ball game. The production of art became limited, most the statues of gods, temples and religion vanished out of sight and there is little evidence of a commercial art market at the time.
The art market went to sleep for several centuries until the Renaissance (14th – 17th century) when wealthy families got reacquainted with antiquities and our famous, ancient Roman marble copies. The culture of collecting officially came back to life. Tastes in art changed drastically though, there was new wealth in a growing middle class that was triggered by peasants moving into city-states. People began developing extravagant tastes for jewelry, fine tapestries, furniture and more.
At last THIS is when everyone broke out of their shell and the world of art truly took a turn for the thrill! But to know more about that you’re going to have to hold your breath and wait for part 2.0 of A Little History of the Art Market to be continued.