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Talking Prices: Symbolic Meanings of Prices on the Market for Contemporary Art (Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology) [Paperback]

Olav Velthuis
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Book Description

19 Aug 2007 Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology

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.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (19 Aug 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691134030
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691134031
  • Product Dimensions: 1.7 x 15.9 x 23.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 262,678 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Winner of the 2006 Viviana Zelizer Distinguished Scholarship Award, Section on Economic Sociology of the American Sociological Association

"The book is an excellent, readable and thorough analysis of how prices are set in the contemporary art market."--The Art Newspaper

"[Talking Prices] provides an excellent analysis of the tension between art and commerce that characterizes the art world."--Stuart Plattner, American Anthropologist

"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, like a still-life of Pieter Claesz; at other times it is bold and sophisticated, like a painting of Karel Appel, or Kees Van Dongen. It is an essay definitely worth reading."--Calin Valsan, Journal of Cultural Economics

From the Inside Flap

"Olav Velthuis has built a graceful, sturdy bridge across a torrent: the turbulent flow of art markets. On one side we have the supposition that art and money follow incompatible principles; on the other, the claim that markets reduce all commodities to creatures of supply and demand. By looking closely at the actual culture and social connections of art markets in New York and Amsterdam, he arrives at insight after insight into a meaning-drenched form of commerce, and by extension into the place of meanings in markets of every kind. This bridge stands firm."--Viviana A. Zelizer, author of The Purchase of Intimacy and The Social Meaning of Money

"A superb book! Talking Prices is the best thing I have yet to read on the way art markets-in any period-work. Written in the most fluid style, it is a pleasure to read and contains a great many juicy details that shed light on the inner workings of dealers and sellers and artists. Furthermore, it will carve out a space in the economic sociology of art that is occupied, at present, by nobody. Without question, it will leap across disciplinary boundaries, especially that huge and often ugly one between 'sociologists' and 'economists.' What tops it all off is that Velthuis is also an expert in art history and understands the aesthetic values and norms of composing art that matter not only to the artists who are selling to galleries, but also to the way in which artworks are sold and to the culture that shapes the way art markets operate. This is a major accomplishment."--Jack Amariglio, Merrimack College, coauthor of Postmodern Moments in Modern Economics

"A brilliant piece of work. Velthuis has taken the hardest case, and gotten out of it the best laws: about pricing, which the economist wants to read as prudence and the anthropologist wants to leave to the economist; and about high art, which the anthropologist wants to read as power and the economist wants to leave to the anthropologist. It's a brave book, and accomplishes what it ventures."--Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois, Chicago, author of Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Amazing! 2 Jan 2013
By sarbern
Very interesting book detailing how the complicated art market functions and how values are placed. Recommend!
It's cleared up a lot of things for me and I understand more now. Very nice and easy to read too.
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing economic analysis of how fine art is sold 9 Feb 2007
By Rolf Dobelli - Published on Amazon.com
Getting a handle on the economics of the art market is much like grabbing smoke. Dealers are loath to discuss the financial side of their business and the private nature of their transactions frustrates researchers. Even the ostensibly open world of auctions is full of slippery practices. None of that deterred Olav Velthuis, whose exhaustive research into the art market yields a fascinating economic analysis. He explores the anticommercial bias of dealers and even finds some tangible factors that influence art prices. While impressive, Velthuis' work would have benefited from a more conversational, less academic tone. His fascinating price study, for instance, focuses on "coefficients" and "t-values" rather than on actual prices. Still, we recommend this study for its ambitious and intriguing attempt to shed light on a little-known corner of the economy.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still the best book on the subject 15 Jan 2014
By Terry King - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I continue to reference this book in most of my professional writing and it will remain required reading in my firm.
4.0 out of 5 stars Explaining art world behavior with economic models. 20 April 2012
By MonsoonKing - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Velthius does a nice job taking the often curious behavior of art world players and explaining them with standard economic models. Why do dealers price primary market paintings at half their auction value? Why does a culture of favoritism and gift giving trump a transparent market model? How do dealers think about pricing the work of an artist for their first gallery show? Through a serious of interviews, data analyses, and observations, Velthius tackles these questions and many more.

The author pays particular attention to the competing worlds of aesthetics and commerce that must uncomfortably coexist in the art world. On the one hand, art world players insist that economic considerations are crass where beauty and scholarship should reign supreme. But at the end of the day, dealers are businesspeople who need to pay rent, support their artists, please collectors, and support themselves.

If you're hoping to use this book to price art or predict future prices, you'll probably be very disappointed. The book makes some very rudimentary empirical observations that should be obvious to anyone even casually involved in the art world (larger paintings are more expensive than smaller paintings for a given artist), but the author concedes that pricing is too idiosyncratic to hope to build anything approaching a robust pricing model.

While this book waxes academic, it should be pretty readable to anyone with a rudimentary background in economics. The art world jargon is kept to relative minimum. If you're looking for a breezy, entertaining read, I'd strongly consider The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art.
7 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very enlightening 6 May 2007
By P. Wade - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book isn't easy reading, but it has some very useful information for artists regarding pricing of their work.
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