Because auction prices are published, people often mistakenly equate them with stock prices. In truth, auctions represent only a fraction of the total art market, and the process is far from transparent.
• The top of the market is extremely thin. There are a few hundred billionaires in the world who can afford to spend over $50 million for a single work of art.
• The qualitative differences between record-breakers and lesser-priced also-rans by the same artist are often minimal. Sometimes the lower priced work is actually better artistically.
• To achieve record prices, auctioneers steer presale interest toward what they believe to be the top lots, or to works in which they have a financial stake. Other works in the sale can suffer as a result.
• Often there is not enough collector demand to support all the lots offered during a given season by the three main auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillip’s). Lopsided sales results are the norm.
• It can be incorrect to assume that a work which sells sub-estimate or goes unsold at auction is somehow flawed. Mediocre sales results, particularly in the middle segment of the market, are built into the current system.