The Western Art Market and Art between 1930 and 1950

Methodological Approaches Aiming at Transdisciplinary Research 


February 26-27, 2016
Symposium at the German Historical Institute Washington
Convener: Jeroen Euwe (GHI)

Participants: Amanda Brandellero (University of Amsterdam & Erasmus University Rotterdam), Géraldine David (Université Libre de Bruxelles), Elisabeth Engel (GHI), Christel Force (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Meike Hopp (Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte, Munich), Christian Huemer (Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles), Fulvia Zaninelli (Smithsonian Institution). Guests: Mary Kate Cleary (Art Recovery Group, Astoria, NY), Jane Milosch (Smithsonian Institution), Lynn Nicholas (Washington DC)

The Western art market during the period from 1933 to 1950 is an exceptionally fertile subject for research. Restitution of looted art, National-Socialist cultural policies, the craze for art collecting among the National Socialist elite, the post-war canonization of avant-garde art, as well as the macro-economic links between the German economic exploitation of the occupied territories in the West and the art market boom that occurred there are but some areas that are of interest.

This symposium was conceived out of the notion that although the subject has become quite popular, it has also become increasingly fragmented. Cultural historians, art historians, and provenance researchers have been joined by finance experts, sociologists, economic historians, and others, with the digital humanities being the most recent addition to the roster of sciences studying the art market. Occasionally, there will be a conference that brings researchers from these disciplines together, but time is always limited to discussing the latest paper instead of exchanging ideas and forging research partnerships. This symposium was aimed at addressing this issue, and brought together seven European and North American researchers from various disciplines. Each participant discussed her or his background, the methodologies typical to their field, and how these could be used to study the Western art market between 1930 and 1950. 

The first panel consisted of Amanda Brandellero, a sociologist, and Meike Hopp, a provenance researcher and art historian. From her experience studying the emergence of the art market in Brazil, Amanda Brandellero suggested a number of interesting techniques. For instance, the acceptance of modern art could be studied by a content analysis (using topic modelling) of exhibition reviews. These could then be followed by a qualitative content analysis to assess evaluation, association, and innovation for artists or genres of art. Latent cluster analysis could then be used to study emerging clusters of galleries, which, combined with an analysis of spatial shifts, could also uncover societal shifts. 

Meike Hopp works on art auction houses during the National Socialist era. She reflected on the problems involved in constructing databases, such as varying spellings of names of buyers and consigners. Since a considerable number of lots came  from the occupied German territories, there is additional uncertainty regarding provenance. Therefore additional research is required before a painting's movements can be tracked. Unfortunately, as she points out, because of copyright and privacy laws much information cannot be made available online, nor can it be shared freely. The first panel ended with a lively discussion on this latter issue, the possibilities of content modelling, and other subjects.

The second panel began with a presentation by Christian Huemer, an art historian and specialist in digital humanities. He focused on the continuing growth of the number of online databases, pointing out that much information remains unused. Buyers, sellers, and prices -- and especially the determinants that have an impact on price -- often have not been researched. He suggested checking the level of integration of the art markets and doing network analysis to assess the importance and role of agents. Although this latter aspect was similar to what Amanda Brandellero suggested, Huemer’s approach was different. Using software, he visualizes the data and at the same time makes it interactive. However, since interaction with these data is an important aspect of this visualization, publication is dependent on a yet-to-be-created academic online platform that is comparable to refereed journals.

The second panelist, art historian and provenance researcher Fulvia Zaninelli, studies the collector Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi (1878-1955), an Italian aligned with the fascist régime, who also supplied art for U.S. collectors. A network analysis shows he was in contact with key people in the art market. The export of cultural heritage during the fascist era, and the tension between letting heritage art depart and the value of this art on the domestic market were especially interesting. It also sparked discussion on the export of art as a tool for the creation of cultural identity, a propaganda tool for fascism, and related issues.

The final panel began with a paper by Géraldine David, whose background is in art history and in finance. She takes a macro-approach to art market research, focusing on acquiring a global view of the evolution of market prices over time and gaining insight into how the market reacts to extreme events. Price indices are constructed using hedonic regression, a technique that takes the heterogeneity of works of art into account. This way, insights are gained into a variety of relevant aspects of the art market, for instance, how consumers for luxury goods behave in a market or how price functions as a signal of appreciation. This latter aspect is also interesting when comparing prices with other goods, such as stocks, gold, real estate, etc.

The next presenter, curator and art historian Christel Hollevoet-Force, studies the evolution of the market for Picasso before World War II for his Blue and Rose Periods. How did the prices for Picasso evolve? Archival material shows great differences in prices, so how can we make sense of this? To answer these questions, she takes a multi-pronged approach, looking at the role of dealers in positioning, promoting, and networking, but also collectors' preferences and the role of information asymmetry. Here, transatlantic dealer networks played an important role, enabling the dealers to steer the market.

The final presentation was by social-economic historian Jeroen Euwe. He studies long-term developments on the art market, the market’s response to economic and political crises and how it reflects shifts in taste. The latter aspect is part of a broader research interest that looks at the dynamics of canonization, and how the market is linked to the critical reception of art. Related to this is the possible influence of sentiments linked to politics, gender, race or nationality on the price of works of art. Such sentiments can also be linked to the loss of cultural heritage as the art market moves from local to international sales. As is usual in his field, he appropriates methodologies from other fields. Discussions on the meaning of canonization in relation to prices, critical response and exhibition history, the reliability of auction prices, and archives, closed the session.

On the following morning the symposium concluded with a final session, about avenues for further research and cooperation. Although from very different fields, many researchers use similar techniques, such as network analysis. Nevertheless, the applied methodology is different: either oriented towards visualization, statistical analysis, or qualitative analysis. Although many results overlap, each approach will yield some unique results. Given that the same data is needed, researchers should therefore collaborate in building the datasets and in their analysis. The same goes for a study of price formation. Therefore collaboration should not be limited to the exchange of ideas for new approaches to the subject, but should also focus on exchange of information and sharing of data.

The immediate positive effects of the conference are a collaboration between Christian Huemer and Jeroen Euwe on a study of the price developments and structural shifts in the German art auction market between 1933 and 1945, and a lecture on “Art Market Data Analysis” by Euwe at the Kolloquium Provenienz- und Sammlungsforschung of the Zentralinstut für Kunstgeschichte in Munich. Given the enthusiasm of both participants and guests, it seems likely these are just the first of many future partnerships.

Jeroen Euwe (GHI / Erasmus University, Rotterdam)