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Book Review
‘Talking Prices’
Indeed, the task of getting a fair grasp of the art market’s mechanism and economics is filled with too many assumptions not easily fathomable to all. Dealers often are averse to delve into the financial aspects of their working and often the private nature of their operations can frustrate researchers. Auctions have democratized the entire process of price discovery, but there are still practices beyond our comprehension when it comes to rationalizing the market movements. This has prompted Olav Velthuis to carry an exhaustive research for consumption of common art lovers keen to better understand the art market.

The art and economics expert has come up with a fascinating analysis and exploration of the approach of key players to find out certain tangible and intangible elements that greatly determine art prices. Of course, ‘Talking Prices’ (Publisher: Princeton University Press: Pages: 288; Price: $24.95) has an academic undertone to it with its price study, for example, focusing more on ‘t-values’ and ‘coefficients’ instead of actual prices, but that’s because the subject demands this data. The core purpose of the document is to shed further light on the financial facets of art, inquiring ‘how exactly do art dealers price contemporary artworks in a highly skewed and competitive professional world wherein definite objective criteria are seemingly absent?’

The book, which has received the Viviana Zelizer Distinguished Book Award of the American Sociological Association, examines the above question from a deeper sociological perspective. An accompanying note elaborates: “On the basis of a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including interviews with art dealers in New York and Amsterdam, Velthuis shows how contemporary art galleries juggle the contradictory logics of art and economics. In doing so, they rely on a highly ritualized business repertoire. For instance, a sharp distinction between a gallery's museum-like front space and its businesslike back space safeguards the separation of art from commerce.”

Cornell University in an interesting exercise involving the study of Architecture of the Contemporary Art Market last year chose ‘Talking Prices’. The participants were asked to read the first couple of chapters and decide the factors, which support it like the spaces for the sale and exhibition of art; the cultural value of art; the symbolic value of art and the players and/or playing fields involved in setting the prices for contemporary art. They were asked to select a specific example of a particular aspect of the architecture of the art market (i.e. the gallery spaces used for selling art that the author discusses – front room, back room, etc.; the auction house; or the different kinds of galleries or a more theoretical aspect of the market and/or pricing and valuation to further elucidate your point.

Serving as Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Amsterdam, Olav Velthuis is director of the master programs. He worked for Dutch daily ‘de Volkskrant’ for several years as a Reporter Globalization before opting to study in-depth the emergence/development of the BRIC-countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) art markets. His research interests incorporate areas of economic sociology, cultural sociology, sociology of consumption and sociology of art. Velthuis has also penned ‘Imaginary Economics’ (NAi Publishers, 2005) and edited ‘Contemporary Art and Its Commercial Markets A Report on Current Conditions and Future Scenarios’ (Sternberg Press, 2012) with Maria Lind of Tensta Konsthall. His writings have been published in among others the Art Newspaper, Artforum, and the Financial Times.

Among the key topics that he deals with in ‘Talking Prices’ are ‘The Architecture of the Art Market’; ‘Promoters versus Parasites’; ‘Determinants of Prices’; ‘The Art of Pricing’; ‘Stories of Prices’; and ‘Symbolic Meanings of Prices’. Serving as Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology of the University of Amsterdam, Olav Velthuis is director of the master programs. He worked for Dutch daily ‘de Volkskrant’ for several years as a Reporter Globalization before opting to study in-depth the emergence/development of the BRIC-countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) art markets. His research interests incorporate areas of economic sociology, cultural sociology, sociology of consumption and sociology of art.

Calin Valsan of Journal of Cultural Economics notes: “Velthuis' essay is absorbing because it challenges our understanding of economics, culture, and society. Its narrative is stylish and refined; at times the discourse shows craftsmanship and attention to details." The author suggests that art prices are not just abstract numbers. Instead they convey richer meanings. A higher price may suggest not only the quality of an artwork but also the status of collectors who have bought it before that artist's credibility was established. Such intangible meanings are far obviously from unequivocal. In a way, this engagingly written narration reveals the curious shades behind the price mechanism.