In his new book, “Art Collecting Today,” former Christie’s president of the Americas Doug Woodham guides the reader through the ins and outs of the modern art market: where to learn about it, what’s out there, how the market works, and how to get your start in collecting. Today’s $57 billion art market, he writes, is shaped by means and desire: an unprecedented number of people with the resources to buy art, and a growing pool of people with the education and proclivity for its appreciation. He begins by laying out the facts and figures that underpin current and future demand for art, and explains what it means for the market. The following essay is adapted from the book.
Art is the ultimate discretionary purchase made by those who have the means and desire to own precious objects. The number of people with the means to acquire art has increased sharply, as has the subset that desires it.
Close to thirty-four million people around the world now have a net worth of at least $1 million, up from approximately fourteen million in 2000. Further up the pyramid, 124,000 individuals globally are worth at least $50 million. The number of billionaires has also increased. My favorite measure of extreme wealth is the price of entry to the Forbes list of the four hundred richest people in the United States. In 2015, one needed $1.7 billion to join the club, almost twice what it was ten years ago. It is also a club that excludes many: 145 billionaires in the United States missed the 2015 list because the bar was so high.
But means alone does not make an art collector. Three factors are behind the increased desirability of art: education, exclusivity, and opportunity cost. The triumph of liberal arts education has led to greater awareness of art and higher demand for art and design in daily life. Almost sixty-nine million people in the United States now have four or more years of higher education, an increase of twenty-four million since 2000. Cultural literacy in this large pool of individuals is an important social requirement to effectively navigate the worlds of business, finance, and professional services. Once culturally literate, it is a relatively short hop to getting involved with the worlds of art and design and experiment with collecting.
Conventional and social media have also enhanced the sense of exclusivity associated with owning art. Museum curators share stories with me regularly about tours they lead where visitors are excited to see paintings they have only experienced digitally. Ironically, the easy availability of digital images has made the original artwork seem even more precious and valuable. Moreover, as high-quality clothing, restaurant meals, and vacation travel have become more readily available, many luxury goods and services are now viewed as far less exclusive and special. Unique objects created by artists, in contrast, have soared in perceived value. Owning them becomes a way to communicate social status and taste in ways no longer possible with many other luxury goods.