Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Big Data of the Art Market and the Value of Culture

The art market is increasingly global. In news this past week, Christie’s reportedly became the first foreign auction house to gain permission to operate independently in mainland China, and apparently more collectors worldwide are blurring national borders by buying art online, and not just affordable contemporary works. Still, competition between nations and cultures remains a part of the art world. For example, the United States regained the top market share for total (auction and private) sales in 2012, but reportedly China still had the largest auction market.
As political boundaries give way to globalization, cultures become more exposed to foreign influence. Rhetoric by officials in China and concerns about the influence of development in Africa reflect the effects on national cultures. While effects are apparent, tracking change remains a challenge. Qualitative observations describe the change, but a measurable rate of change remains elusive. An emerging political economy of cultural property adds complexity but also identifies a means to track the change.
A global market for art and antiques provides a means to measure the perceived “value” of culture. Enterprises such as Artprice of France and Artron of China increasingly provide data online to monitor art sales, and a recent report on the two enterprises combining resources holds potential for a comprehensive source of data from the art market. Similarly, the annual report that follows TEFAF provides data not only on auction sales but also on private sales, which can make up a significant portion of the global market for art and antiques. But what does the resulting Big Data look like, and what does it say about the value of culture?
The graph to the right provides a sense of the types of possible analyses. All data were derived from TEFAF annual reports. The dotted black line indicates global sales of art and antiques by year. The right vertical axis provides a scale in billions of USD. Note the dramatic drop in sales with the economic crisis of 2008 and the gradual recovery through 2011 with a slight market correction in 2012. The solid lines indicate the percentages of the top three nations in the market, and the left vertical axis provides a scale. The green line indicates that the United States has had a dominant market share with the exception of 2011. The blue line indicates that the United Kingdom has fallen off in market share but has maintained a consistent share since 2010. The purple line indicates that China steadily increased in market share through, and even surpassed the United States in, 2011 before dropping off slightly in 2012.
The steady increase of China’s market share may suggest that China increasingly values culture, at least in the form of fine art and antiques. The increase does demonstrate China’s ability to compete with Western nations for influence in the global spectrum of cultural power. The available data allow for further analyses on fine art and antiques, and the market for antiquities remains to be explored.
What other questions about the perceived value of culture in the 21st century might be asked and answered through Big Data of the art market?

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