The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of Picture Prices, 1760-1960

The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of Picture Prices, 1760-1960

The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of Picture Prices, 1760-1960

The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of Picture Prices, 1760-1960

Excerpt

How fascinating the price of pictures has become in this humdrum world. But in fact there has been a peculiar fascination in the price of pictures since the early sixteenth century. At a time when painters still charged a fixed rate for the job, as if they were making a pair of shoes, certain paintings began to acquire a prestige value. They were painted, not into the plaster of walls but on portable panels or canvases in order that their owners might trade them, if need be. These pictures began to change hands, as they do now, at higher and higher prices. Sometimes fantasy prices were paid by princes and cardinals, just to show that they were princes and cardinals, like Arab khalifs who filled the mouths of poets with gold. But quite often high prices were reached, because two or three magnates wanted the same picture. By the time that the collecting of pictures of the past as well as the present reached England, that is to say a hundred years later, in the reign of James I, there was already an international market. By 1650 the Raphaels of Charles I were sold for prices up to £2,000, his Correggios for £1,000 each, his commissioned works from living artists for anything from £40 to £200 according to the reputation of the artist and the magnitude of the work.

It is clear from memoir writers and letter writers that by the middle of the eighteenth century art-prices had the same interest for the informed public as they have to-day. Ambling through the Midlands in the 1780's Lord Torrington was shown a reputed Raphael in a squire's house. What could its value be? Stretching his imagination to the full, he suggested £7,000. It was widely known in those days that in 1754 the King of Saxony had given £8,500 for the Sistine Madonna, the highest sum that had ever been paid for any picture. When the name of Raphael was mentioned, people thought in those terms.

But what did this money value really mean? It was on the one hand a sum that only an absolute monarch could lay his hands on for such a purpose. It was also a yardstick of taste. At the time that the King of Saxony bought his Raphael, a gold-ground altarpiece of the Trecento or early Quattrocento could have been had for a few pounds. In this case the relationship of price is particularly interesting. It illustrates . . .

Author Advanced search

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.