How do dealers price contemporary art in a world where objective criteria seem absent? Talking Prices is the first book to examine this question from a sociological perspective. On the basis of a wide range of qualitative and quantitative data, including interviews with art dealers in New York and Amsterdam, Olav 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 museumlike front space and its businesslike back space safeguards the separation of art from commerce. Velthuis shows that prices, far from being abstract numbers, convey rich meanings to trading partners that extend well beyond the works of art. A high price may indicate not only the quality of a work but also the identity of collectors who bought it before the artist's reputation was established. Such meanings are far from unequivocal. For some, a high price may be a symbol of status; for others, it is a symbol of fraud.
Whereas sociological thought has long viewed prices as reducing qualities to quantities, this pathbreaking and engagingly written book reveals the rich world behind these numerical values. Art dealers distinguish different types of prices and attach moral significance to them. Thus the price mechanism constitutes a symbolic system akin to language.
Olav Velthuis has worked as Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Konstanz and has been a Visiting Scholar at Princeton University and Columbia University. Currently he writes about economic affairs for the Dutch newspaper "De Volkskrant".
List of Tables and Graphs ix Acknowledgments xi Introduction 1 Chapter 1: The Architecture of the Art Market 21 Chapter 2: Exchanging Meaning 53 Chapter 3: Promoters versus Parasites 77 Chapter 4: Determinants of Prices 97 Chapter 5: The Art of Pricing 116 Chapter 6: Stories of Prices 132 Chapter 7: Symbolic Meanings of Prices 158 Chapter 8: Conclusion 179 Appendix A: Interview Questionnaire 191 Appendix B: Description of Interview Sample 194 Appendix C: Record Prices for Art 197 Appendix D: Multilevel Analysis of Prices for Art 199 Notes 209 Bibliography 237 Index 255