A Short History of the Art Market
The creation of art began with ancient man, who created symbolic and decorative images on the walls of caves, on the jewelry with which he adorned his body, on the surfaces of his clay pots. Man tattooed the very surface of his skin, created images and patterns in floor mosaics and on the frescos which decorated his walls. Woven tapestries have been found in Egyptian tombs and wrapped around ancient Peruvian mummies. They hung on the walls of stone palaces, illustrating stories from mythology, the lives of saints and monarchs, the fantasies of courtly life. Lavishly decorated manuscripts pleased the eye while instructing readers in religion, history, botany, astronomy and medicine.
During the Italian Renaissance, the Medicis were among the leading patrons of humanism, an artistic and literary movement centered on man. This powerful family supported painters, sculptors, jewelers, musicians, poets and scientists, commissioning many of the greatest works of fresco, sculpture and architecture which we admire today.
The first organized exhibit space for the purpose of selling pictures was recorded in Antwerp in 1540. According to the city's Records of Commerce, this permanent area of small shops for art dealers was a success. Antwerp was also the birthplace of the Guild of St. Luke, created with explicit rules to govern the artisans who became its members. See Antwerp in the Early 1500s.
During the "golden age" of seventeenth century Netherlands, the Dutch economy came to be dominated by a merchant class in which collecting art was an integral part of one's life-style. Today we greatly treasure the fine portraits, sea and landscapes, still lives and genre scenes of everyday life which were purchased for their homes by patrons who were not aristocratic, but solidly and comfortably middle class.
The first place in which the public was invited to view works of art was established in 18th century Paris, in the Louvre, a royal palace. Treasures belonging to the royal family of France were displayed, and the king's subjects were allowed to enter and view the collection. Since the French Revolution, the Louvre has become an essential destination for art lovers. Perhaps it was the example of the Louvre which, in the 19th century, stimulated a boom in the building of art museums, particularly in Europe and the United States.
At the end of the 19th century, Paris became the center of a series of modern art movements, beginning with Impressionism. Wealthy American collectors were among the first to appreciate this new work, which was available at bargain prices when compared to the works of the old masters. Many of the finest works by Impressionists such as Manet, Degas, Renoir and Monet and Post-Impressionists Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gauguin were purchased by Americans and ultimately made their way into the many great museums in the United States.
Interest in works by the "old masters" remained strong among early 20th century collectors, and wealthy Americans sought the advice of British-born Joseph Duveen, who became the most influential art dealer of all time. With the help of Bostonian Bernard Berenson, a master of the new discipline known as art history, Duveen sold privately held masterpieces of European art to the newly rich American masters of industry.