In May, an anonymous bidder purchased Pablo Picasso’s “Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” (1955) for $160 million, paying an additional $19.35 million to Christie’s in commission fees. The nearly $180 million set a new sales record that prompted much comment on global inequality, and now a new series of maps created by howmuch.net attempts to look at art valuation based on country of origin. The website, which visualizes all types of cost estimates, filled in the areas of various nations with their most expensive paintings, detailing the sale prices below each map. The resulting imagery is quite compelling but should be taken with a grain of salt as the methodology of the researchers is not entirely consistent: it is unclear whether they focused on the birthplace or ancestries of artists or the countries these artists largely worked in. Ivan Aivazovsky, for example, whose painting occupies the place of the Republic of Armenia, is a Russian painter of Armenian descent who never lived in Armenia. While, Canada is represented by Lawren Harris, even though “Scene in the Northwest: Portrait of John Henry Lefroy” by Paul Kane fetch far higher at auction. The data was also taken from public auctions with reported prices, so the study is also incomplete as it does not include unconfirmed amounts. (An online spreadsheet is available to dissect the complete list of paintings, prices, and location.)
Still, aside from being pretty, the maps offer some insightful observations of the art market: as howmuch.net notes, buyers tend to assign the greatest value to Western — and largely European — works: according to its numbers, paintings by Munch, Warhol, Klimt, van Gogh, Monet, Ruben, and Modigliani claim the top ten positions. The most expensive painting from Asia is reportedly Zhang Daqian’s “Lotus and Mandarin Ducks,” which sold for $24,551,210 — or less than 14 percent of Picasso’s price tag. Chilean artist Robert Matta claims the highest value for a South American work for “La révolte des contraires,” which raked in $5,010,500; just $35,000 shy of Matta’s painting is the highest-selling one from Africa: South African artist Irma Stern’s “Arab Priest.” Matta and Stern’s paintings each amount to less than three percent the cost of the Picasso.
Discrepancies aside, the study concludes that the maps illustrate “the accumulation of wealth in rich nations,” showing the increasing value of artworks as investments rather than objects appreciated solely for aesthetic reasons. As the researchers posit:
This might be having profound impacts on the wider economy: some have speculated that bouts of increased art sales actually signal overheated equity markets. Whether or not this is true, it is clear that the market for rare art is alive and well, and showing no signs of slowing.