Who can you trust in the art market?

“And the most important thing we always say, please don’t take our word for it, please check it.” -Ivan Macquisten

Report on the Art Innovators Alliance – 24 September 2019

Trust and transparency go hand in hand, and it was the most hotly debated topic at London’s Art Innovators Alliance debate, moderated by Bernadine Brocker Wieder, Vastari’s Co-founder. Old school approaches clashed with modern sensibilities – a microcosm of what plays out on a larger scale in the art world. With only so much data available and advisors at every corner, where can buyers and sellers find information that they can trust, and how can the art market, in the widest sense of the term, make itself seem less opaque?

The panel discussed the amount of fraud taking place year on year in the art market. Art analyst Ivan Macquisten estimated that if there was greater transparency, an average of 10 billion of trades wouldn’t go through every year. While this figure might not be 100% accurate, he uses it to explain the magnitude of the problem: from works found illegally, to unfair prices, and fraudulent practices. “To me, the biggest cost of the non-transparency of the art market is all the people who could have potentially invested in the art market, and who do not because they’re scared of it all”, added Christine Bourron, CEO and Founder of Pi-eX.


However, getting reliable data is not as straightforward as it sounds. Bourron believes that the most essential requirement to an investment is data, “and then you need to evaluate your investment”. On the other side of the argument, Philip Hoffman, Founder and CEO of The Fine Art Group, claimed that “the data makes no difference to the art market. I don’t look at any charts, they can all be manipulated”. While his statement was deliberately flippant, and it’s likely he does still employ and rely on charts and data, the point that data is never neutral is an important one to remember. To Bourron, interpretation of data is, of course, essential, but so is honesty about the data: “you cannot hide a part of the data”.

There is also, of course, the notion of “the art market” to contend with, as Macquisten is keen to point out: “there is no such thing as the art market, instead there are hundreds of micro markets.” In this, he echoes Clare MacAndrews’ notion that the art market is a vast array of “independently moving submarkets that are defined by artists, genres, price points, and geographical locations”.

Which data do you trust?

Should we trust “honest” data, or the expertise of the likes of Hoffman? Data only takes you so far before experts and their assumptions have to take over – a point made by Bourron across the evening. Reputable sources, such as Clare MacAndrews’ Art Basel report, are also by necessity built on assumptions – since many of the sources aren’t accessible (for example those related to private sales). To some extent, Macquisten argued, the exact figures aren’t necessarily all-important – but getting enough to make informed decisions is.

It seems unlikely that we will see the “art world” adopt the approach of tech companies such as Buffer who have opted for 100% transparency on all levels from salaries and fundraising to their coding. As the panel made clear, in the art world, those who demand transparency are rarely transparent themselves. Will transparency also cause harm to some companies’ businesses due to less scrupulous ones?

While not all of the panellists were on board for full transparency, the consensus seemed to be that they all thought more work was needed to improve trust with future art investors if businesses want to keep navigating smoothly in the future.