Eight individual works of modern art have been sold at auction for more than $100 million since 2010. These startling prices have reinforced a long-standing belief of art experts that auction markets have no rational basis. So for example, Time magazine critic Robert Hughes (1992) declared that “[t]he price of a work of art is an index of pure, irrational desire”. Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s chief auctioneer, contended that auction prices could only be described as “magical” (Leonhardt 2006). And anybody who claimed otherwise was dishonest – Robert Rosenblum, a curator at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, told the Wall Street Journal that “I immediately distrust anybody trying to detect patterns… in art, especially in terms of economics” (Duff 1998).
Are there rational patterns in art?
We have recently analysed all auction records of paintings by Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol sold during 1965-2015 – a total of 160 paintings by Pollock, and a remarkable 2,870 by Warhol (Galenson and Lenzu 2015). Pollock and Warhol were chosen because a recent study found that art scholars consider them the two greatest painters born in the twentieth century (Galenson 2009). Taking a painting’s sale price as the dependent variable, for each artist we estimated a non-parametric hedonic regression with a series of binary independent variables for the artist’s age when he executed the painting, and controls for the size of the work, its support (paper or canvas), and date of sale. The estimated coefficients of the age variables trace out an age-price profile for Pollock that peaks at ages 36-38, and a profile for Warhol that peaks at 34-35.
To determine whether these estimated peak ages were meaningful, we compared them to the evaluations of these artists’ careers by art experts, in two different ways. First, taking all available textbooks of art history published in English since 1990, of which we found a total of 61, we distributed all the illustrations of the work of Pollock and Warhol by each artist’s age at the date of the illustrated work’s execution. We found that the single year from which Pollock’s work is most often illustrated in the books is age 38, and that for Warhol is 34.
Second, we distributed by the artist’s age at execution all the works included in the two artists’ most recent complete retrospective exhibitions – Pollock’s at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1998-99 (Varnedoe 1998), Warhol at Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie and London’s Tate Modern in 2001-02 (Bastian 2001). We found that the single year represented by the largest number of works in the 1998-99 Pollock retrospective was age 36, while that for Warhol was 34.
Experimental and conceptual innovators
The agreement of these three very different sources clearly demonstrates that there are patterns in art. The auction market places Jackson Pollock’s peak at 36-38. Textbook illustrations place it at 38. His most recent retrospective exhibition places it at 36. Andy Warhol’s most expensive paintings were done at ages 34-35. Textbook illustrations place Warhol’s peak at 34, and his most recent retrospective exhibition does the same.
The close agreement of these three sources is of course not accidental. There is a consensus among art scholars that Jackson Pollock produced his greatest art during 1948-50, when he was 36-38. In these years, he used his novel drip technique to make radical visual innovations – paintings with large, all-over images that had no central focal point; that used line not to define figures or bound spaces, but as independent elements of composition; and that enveloped the viewer within a space that could be imagined to extend indefinitely, that some critics considered to represent the vast open spaces of western prairies, in a distinctively American departure from traditional European art. With these paintings, Willem de Kooning declared that “Jackson broke the ice” (Ashton 1973) – they made Pollock the leader of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and inspired his contemporaries and younger artists both for the beauty of the images and the spontaneity and freedom that the drip technique symbolised.
There is equally a consensus among art scholars that Andy Warhol made his greatest contributions in 1962, when he was 34. In that year, he made three far-reaching formal innovations – he used serial imagery, he devised mechanical techniques to produce paintings, and he based paintings entirely on photographs. These practices trampled on one of the oldest and most cherished traditions of painting, the conviction that great art was a product of the inspired touch of the artist, and Warhol heightened the insult by declaring, “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine” (Goldsmith 2004). These innovations gained Warhol recognition as the leader of Pop Art, and became basic practices for many of the greatest visual artists for most of the 20th Century and beyond.
Pollock and Warhol were archetypal experimental and conceptual innovators, respectively (Galenson 2006). Experimental innovators work by trial and error toward imprecise aesthetic goals. Jackson Pollock spent nearly two decades working toward a new way of making the large paintings that he believed were the future of art. At 35, he arrived at his novel drip technique, and spent several more years developing it before he produced the monumental masterpieces for which he is celebrated today. In contrast, conceptual innovators arrive suddenly at novel ways of expressing specific ideas. Andy Warhol decided to become a painter only after he spent a decade as a successful commercial illustrator. Within barely two years of his decision, he was making photographs into paintings using mechanical printing techniques. These early paintings, which would influence generations of young artists, were the most important ones he would ever make.
Great artists are innovators – great works of art are those that embody their innovations. Age-price profiles estimated from auction sales clearly agree with the judgments of art scholars, as recorded in textbooks and retrospective exhibitions, as to when the two greatest painters born in the 20th Century made their greatest works. This agreement decisively rejects the claims of art critics and scholars – art prices follow definite patterns, and these are clearly based on rational judgments. Art markets allow collectors to invest in genius (Stewart 2014), and the results are systematic, as the most innovative works of the most innovative artists are those that bring the highest prices.
Ashton, D (1973), The New York School, University of California Press.
Bastian, H (2001), Andy Warhol Retrospective, Tate Publishing.
Duff, C (May 22, 1998), “In Payscales, Life Sometimes Imitates Art”, Wall Street Journal.
Galenson, D (2006), Old Masters and Young Geniuses, Princeton University Press.
Galenson, D (2009), Conceptual Revolutions in Twentieth-Century Art, Cambridge University Press and NBER.
Galenson, D and S Lenzu (2015), “Pricing Genius: The Market Evaluation of Innovation”, BFI Working Paper 2015-10.
Goldsmith, K (2004), I’ll Be Your Mirror, Carroll and Graf.
Hughes, R (1992), Nothing if Not Critical, Penguin Books.
Leonhardt, D (2006), “The Science of Pricing Great Works of Art”, New York Times, 15 November.
Stewart, J (2014), “With Art, Investing in Genius”, New York Times, 28 November.
Varnedoe, K (1998), Jackson Pollock, Museum of Modern Art.