On the price of priceless goods. Sociological Observations on and around Art Basel


  • Franz Schultheis University of St Gallen




Art Basel, pricing, galleries, art fairs, valuation, appraisal, contemporary art, sociology


Today’s public discourse on art revolves around the price of these priceless goods and numbers function as ciphers for the collective representations of art and its status in late capitalist society. Highly contrary assessments as to how the prices for these goods can be found, depending on the perspective taken. While it may seem that optimal transparency exists with regard to the market and the setting of prices, thanks to commercial databases readily available to everyone, ethnographic field work presents quite a different view. A research group took the question on pricing to a particularly prominent institution of the art market, Art Basel, using a variety of methodological approaches such as qualitative interviews with gallerists, artists, Art Basel staff, curators, art advisors, art critics etc. In the interviews some

unwritten rules for dealing with the pricing of works of art became apparent. Pricing in the field of art requires not just knowledge of the unwritten and often tabooed rules, but also an intuitive feeling for the game and the accompanying strategies. Our empirical findings confirm the existence of two different paradigms. One the one hand there is the image of pure market competition for singular goods with high prestige value. In this view, the pricing of art commodities seems determined in an ideal-typical manner by purely exogenous market-dynamic and competition-driven forces. On the other hand, the idea of a purely endogenous, “art-immanent” reading and appreciation of the intrinsic value of a concrete work of art is maintained, independently of its real or potential market value .




How to Cite

Schultheis, F. (2017). On the price of priceless goods. Sociological Observations on and around Art Basel. Journal for Art Market Studies, 1(1). https://doi.org/10.23690/jams.v1i1.7