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on 26 October 2008
Written by an economist who had access to the most important actors (collectors, dealers, auctioneers, curators, art fair directors...)while doing his research, this book is an in-depth study of the way the market for contemporary art functions, the part played by auction houses, dealers, big collectors, museums, the sometimes incestuous relationships that exist between all of them, how art is priced, how auctions are organized (on and off the scene), how gallery shows are sold (or pre-sold), the importance of art-branding in creating an artist's reputation (the brand being the gallery, the auction house, the artist himself, a museum, or even a collector if he is important enough), and, most importantly, how these art brands are created. One insighful conclusion is that the art market, and the market for contemporary art in particular, is as much brand-driven as any other high-end luxury market. Through case studies (the dealers Larry Gagosian or Jay Joplin, the artists Damien Hirst, Andy Warhol, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons, the auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's, the collector Charles Saatchi...)and broader considerations on the overall economics of art, the author manages to write a book which is at the same time well informed (with some spelling approximations, e.g. "Joe Bernardo" for the Portuguese collector Jose Berardo), to the point and easy to read. Of the more than twenty books on the topic available on Amazon's, this one is the best in my opinion (and I've read quite a few...).
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on 9 February 2009
If you are interested in the financial side of art then this is a great book. If you think art is all about money then this book will be an agreeable read. But if you think art is on a higher plain than filthy lucre then you'll be spitting blood with this book.
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on 13 July 2010
I don't know why I bought this book, but have found it very easy to read. It does reveal the very unscrupulous side of art that professionals like myself knew existed. Well explained and illustrated by Don Thompson some of the 'scams' are breathtaking in their audacity. Integrity is not a word that can be attached to any part of the game. That there has been no exposee of the goings on in the 'Art' market is not surprising since Thompson links Christies, Sotheby's and the Super Rich with the few artists who are overexposed in the media and the BBC. An old boys' network. Fascinating and somehow tawdry and depressing.
Recommended reading for wannabe artists and those who hope for recognition.
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on 21 December 2008
Whilst the art industry traditionally shrouded the artwork behind a transcendental aesthetic fetishism which rendered redundant any notion of use value, the contemporary market has abstracted this onto a purely economic level. Art's value is now not only shorn of any relation to its production or other commodities, but also to those of other artworks.

Thompson provides an insightful investigation into the mechanics of the art market, illuminating the exponential process of increasing sums of money being exchanged for artworks, setting new sales records on a regular basis over recent years. To explore this phenomenon the book reflects on the relationship between artists, galleries, auction houses and collectors, focusing on recent transactions, and some of the major players and artworks involved, with a particular emphasis on the central role of the major auction houses, Sotheby's and Christies, in setting standards of financial value for artworks.

The importance of the book lies in the fact that it reveals that contemporary art production and consumption have little to do with promoting reflective or challenging ideas through the work itself, or has any basis in qualitative values held by either the public, or the industry itself. It is is shame then, that at points in the text, Thompson derides the work of various YBA artists as being substantially of less value than works from earlier historical periods. Asserting subjective judgements of this kind contradicts the journalistic neutrality the book generally projects, and adds nothing to the information it presents.

Perhaps the book could have benefited by relating the art market to the parallel recent developments in investment finance and consumerism to reveal wider social trends taking place, and the interrelated notions of growth, risk management and conspicuous consumption, that fuel and regulate contemporary global economies. But overall it is an informative enough view of the interdependent relationships between aesthetics, investment and consumption within a traditionally discreet commodity based industry.

Interestingly since the books publication the art market has yet again evolved to another level. Damien Hirst's Sept 2008 Sotheby's auction 'Beautiful Inside My Head Forever', recomposed the balance between artist, gallery and auction house into a new alignment, suggesting a new future economic paradigm for the high end players in the market, and perhaps even a starting point for a second volume!
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on 9 January 2011
After years of anti-shark PR, the shark finally gets its own back!
This book is a very readable introduction to the crazy world of the contemporary art market. If you ever wondered how an undiscovered artist suddenly sells art for millions, or how art dealers promote certain artists to the level of celebrities, then this book is for you.
As for the poor old shark itself, I hope Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi cut its family in for a percentage on the $12,000,000 dollars they made from selling it.
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on 28 August 2014
Only recently, Tracey Emin's installation "My Bed" was sold at auction for £2.5 million.

This book explains such phenomena. It was written for people who read about multi-million dollar prices for contemporary artworks and wonder how such eye-watering figures are reached. Most of the art discussed in the book is conceptual, but then a lot of contemporary art is conceptual.

It looks at artists like On Kawara, whose pictures of dates - literally pictures of dates - sell for up to £300,000 each.

Or Felix Gonzales-Torres, whose sculpture "(Untitled) Lover Boys" made of 355 lbs of individual wrapped blue and white candies, sold for $456,000.

Gonzales-Torres also did another sculpture of a pile of 10,000 fortune cookies. This did not reach its reserve price at auction, but the bidding went up to $520,000. In both instances of course there were ideas behind these works. They weren't just cookies or just sweeties. But for some of us the accusation that the emperor is not wearing any clothes cannot help but float to mind.

The author is an economist who has taught marketing at both Harvard Business School and the London School of Economics. He obviously enjoys contemporary art, both as a collector and an observer, and he casts a wide net. He looks at artists, dealers, auction houses and art fairs, and he follows the funnel that sucks in newbie artists at the top, and pops the lucky ones, (the very lucky ones), out at the bottom, as huge iconic branded figures like Damian Hirst, Jeff Koons, Andreas Gursky or David Hockney. We follow the artists' journey - which is mostly one of patronage, from when they leave art school to when they reach the big time, and each step of the way is analysed.

Points of interest I noted from the book....

1) I realised how woefully ignorant I was when it comes to contemporary art. The book mentioned many successful artists with whom I was unfamiliar, and it was good to google their work, and get an idea of what they were doing.

2) It really alerted me to the power of branding, of making oneself into a megga celebrity whose casual signature - let alone artworks - would be treasured for posterity.

3) It gave me a taste of how the super rich wheel and deal. I'm a pore pore woman from sleepy middle England, and I found this eye-opening stuff. These multi-millionaires can be surprisingly insecure though, often relying on the taste of their dealers to tell them what they need to buy. Sometimes they even buy blind, without actually seeing the artwork.

4) Snobbery and status. This would seem to be the underlying impulse for a lot of people buying expensive art. To be seen to have a Damian Hirst on one's wall is big time kudos. Think of owning a Gucci handbag, but bigger, brighter, bolder and sexier.

I have done little to describe the full compass of this book - it really is wonderfully researched and detailed, whilst still being hugely fun and readable. Its ultimate message ? Buy the art you like, and enjoy it. The likelihood of it being a good investment is small. Even Charles Saatchi falls over on a regular basis. Just go for things that give you pleasure.

Absolutely fascinating and highly recommended.


In tandem with reading this book, I listened again to Grayson Perry's fantastic series of Reith Lectures on contemporary art. If Thompson explains the backstage mechanics of today's art market, then Perry explains the heart, creativity and excitement of modern art and artists. Both compliment one another beautifully.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 26 October 2009
When it comes to contemporary art, many observers simply scratch their heads and mumble, "You call that art?" Intriguing, disturbing, exhilarating and obscene, contemporary art is hard to understand. In fact, when you consider pieces like the titular $12 million stuffed shark by Damien Hirst, it is often downright baffling. If you're looking for artistic explanations and interpretations, though, Don Thompson doesn't offer much help. That's not his particular domain. Thompson, an economics and marketing professor, zeroes in on the financial inner-workings of the art world (at least, the pre-2009 recession art world). Curious why certain pieces sell for millions, he delved into the peculiar personalities that inhabit this controversial genre. getAbstract applauds his lively exploration of a fascinating topic that few economists would even ponder.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 13 May 2012
Don Thompson took on the phenomenon of contemporary art, and more importantly the very hair raising prices achieved for some of the pieces (where on occassion your average observer from without the art world would fail to note artistic merit) and analysed it from the point of view of the way this market functions.

He covers all aspects, from the auction houses (primary focus on Christie's and Sotheby's), to branded dealers, to mainstream dealers, art fairs, celebrity collectors, museum curators, art consultants, critics, branded artists themselves, and finally modern buyers and puts these together in a coherent whole, providing a compelling explanation for how the contemporary art world functions.

At the same time this does not read like a stuffy tome on economics, it is much more Malcolm Gladwell in style (with some added structure). He starts off with a good introduction to the phenomenon as a whole, and then subsequently delves into increasing detail on specific aspects (like what mechanisms / tricks of the trade an auctioneer uses for most success). This allows those with a passing interest only to get a good overview early on, and then to skip to perhaps one or two chapters they are particularly curious about, while a more determined reader has the whole spectrum available for a cover to cover read.

The book does come with a short disclaimer - while the author does raise the question of whether art can still be contributed to an artist, if they hardly lay hand on it during its creation, or whether 'a jacket in the corner of a room' is art, the book will not delve in depth into such matters. Thompson takes these things as a given, and rather focuses on the psychological setups and uncertainties of the modern buyer to explain the prices achieved, be it in the end art or not.

How far the concept of branding has made it in the art world, and how important it became may be a shock to most outsiders but the sources used (many of the who's who of the contemporary art ecosystem) add the view a lot of credibility and while art critics or the odd artist may be vexed by the utilitarian view presented of some aspects, it at least appears perfectly plausible.

The book has a good reference section at the end and with the index one can surf back to the section of interest quite nicely on a Kindle. The fact that all the pictures are at the very back in the Kindle format does not help (would in my opinion work better next to the text) but overall the formating of the Kindle version - for all sizes - is spot on.

A book well worth buying for anyone curious about the prices achieved, as well as into how a completely unregulated market can arrange itself and what practices develop in order to take advantage of the setup - can hardly praise it hard enough.
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on 29 May 2013
This is an amusing and comprehensive review of the Art business. It is a lot cheaper than the Christies Art Business course but less academic, it is also enlivened by accounts of the eccentricities of some artists. As a general introduction to the area it is valuable. I certainly won't look at buying my next picture quite the same and have concluded that there is a bubble particularly in YBA where the technical skills of the celebrities are minimal. I urge all the plutocrats who waste their money on fashionable art to do something useful with it - like pay for teachers or family planning in poor contries rather than pose to one another.
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on 25 July 2015
Some books are too long, this is one of them. He does bang on! All very interesting stuff and well researched but I found myself skipping over endless pages citing facts about the same small group of individuals, institutions and works of art until in the end I lost interest and moved on.

Don't let me put you off though as it is reasonably well written and easy to read and also the layout is useful in that you can skip to the chapters which are relevant to your interests. It covers everything you would ever want to know about the workings of the contemporary art scene and I would recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about it. I just feel it would have delivered more impact were it a little less long-winded.
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