Ages and Prices in the Art Market: Is the New York Times Starting to Get It?

For the past 15 years, I have been publishing research that has demonstrated the strong statistical relationships that typically exist between the auction prices of paintings and the ages of artists when the paintings were executed. These relationships are of more than simply economic interest, for they closely track the art historical importance of the art: some great artists make their most important contributions early in their careers, while others develop their contributions gradually, and are greatest late in their lives.

For reasons I have never been able to understand, many in the art world have been hostile to these facts. So be it: ours is a free country, and everyone is free to make mistakes. But what has been more surprising, perhaps, is that leading newspapers have been willing to give a platform to the foolish statements of some of these art world Luddites. So for example in 1998 the Wall Street Journal quoted Robert Rosenblum, a curator at the Guggenheim, declared that "I immediately distrust anybody trying to detect patterns of that sort in art, especially in terms of economics." More recently, in 2006, the New York Times quoted the claim of Sotheby's chief auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, that the market's valuation of art could only be described as "magical." (Interpretive note: "magical" is not a synonym for "systematic.")

But perhaps the journalists are getting it, even if slowly. Several weeks ago, I explained in this space why an Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, to be auctioned in May, was given an estimate significantly lower than the price realized by a Warhol painting of Taylor that was auctioned last November. The key fact was that Liz #5, to be sold in May, was executed in 1963, whereas Men in Her Life, sold in November, was made in 1962. The difference for art history is very great, for 1962 was Warhol's annus mirabilis, the year in which he introduced the innovations that transformed contemporary art.

And now perhaps the New York Times is learning. In her April 15 column, Carol Vogel noted that Liz #5 "is expected to sell for $20 million when it goes on the block on May 12." Then she added: "Four years ago the actor Hugh Grant sold another portrait of Taylor executed the same year for $23.5 million." Executed the same year: very important, even if many in the art world pretend not to recognize this. But now Carol Vogel apparently does. Congratulations to the New York Times: I think you're starting to get it.