WHY DOES THE ART MARKET SEEM SO OPAQUE TO THE PUBLIC?
Art market professionals are often legally required to ensure discretion and transparency. For the art market to continue a certain degree of confidentiality is required.
The authorities always have access to a business’s records but clients and businesses have many legitimate reasons to keep records confidential in respect of other parties. To change current practices regarding confidentiality, the benefit of public transparency of ownership and sales information must be evaluated and would need to be demonstrated as outweighing the right to privacy of the past owners. One way to think about this sense of balance is to imagine that if you were the previous owner, would you want your name publicly linked to an item or artwork without your agreement?
An owners’ identity is available to the authorities but not to the public.
The information that a buyer learns about the seller, cosigner or intermediary involved in the sale varies on a case by case basis. At auction and in a private sale, the seller, cosigner or intermediary who is involved in the sale is not generally revealed. Sometimes for commercial reasons, such as when an artwork comes from a well-respected collection or individual which could add prestige and value to the item, the name of the seller is revealed. If the name is communicated, it has been agreed in advance with the seller.
The dealers and auction houses know from whom they are buying or contracting with and to whom they are selling. There are records of each transaction. This information is available to the authorities if they have reason to believe that a sale or purchase is suspect.
There are legitimate reasons for not identifying the buyer and seller to the public.
Withholding the identity of a source or sales price is considered important for business and for clients for several reasons:
- Security: For both businesses and clients withholding the name of a source or buyer, helps ensure that they are not putting their clients at risk of burglaries.
- Privacy: For clients, selling or purchasing art is a personal choice reflecting their taste and financial means, which they might not want to be known by the public.
- Protection against unwanted solicitation: By providing the name of the source or buyer of an item, it would make those involved in the transaction more vulnerable to undesired solicitations. For businesses, keeping the name of the seller, cosigner or intermediary confidential helps to avoid their businesses being bypassed in a sale.
For example, in the EU, art market professionals must abide by the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) which protects EU citizens from having their personal information disclosed without their permission.
Sale prices are now more frequently available to the public.
Although buyer names are often withheld, sale prices are often announced in the media and by auction houses or are accessible through electronic database searches. Transparency regarding sales prices has occurred in part due to public auctions and auction results, which are now often available online. Electronic databases have been developed which compile historical results of sales price data by artist and categories. At fairs or on internet selling platforms, sales prices are either indicated or are available on request. Nowadays, most art fairs insist that sale price lists are on the premises for consultation.