This time of year the news is full of headlines talking about Contemporary artworks that have sold for tens of millions of dollars at auction in New York. Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Jackson Pollock and others whose masterpieces can attract prices that dominate the upper end of the art market obviously earn their moment in the limelight, and every national and international magazine and newspaper column dedicated to the art and antiques market will be full of news about these sales.
Far less often they also report what is going on at the bottom and middle of the market. Selling a decent Victorian watercolour at £150 is just not news, and I get that. But we should not forget that for all the stratospheric sums paid for the trophy Contemporary works, it is the comparatively workaday pieces that oil the wheels of the global art market, attract new buyers for the first time and form the bedrock of the grander sales.
Think about the billions of pounds worth of stuff sold on eBay each year. A global player for the best part of 20 years now, it has also delved into online auctions of art – albeit with mixed success. But it all started because a collector of humble Pez sweet dispensers wanted to be able to trade them over the internet. It’s another case of mighty oaks growing from tiny acorns. So next time you read about a $50 million Hockney, remember that £150 Victorian watercolour and the indomitable roots of the great world of auctions.