More than half of the commercial oil paintings produced every year are made in the town of Dafen, China.


In 1960, David Rockefeller paid US$8,500 for White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), a painting by Mark Rothko. In 2007, he put White Center up for auction at Sotheby’s, where it took only three minutes of bidding to sell for $72.84 million – the highest price ever paid for a post-war painting.

The market in modern and contemporary art is booming. From 2003 to 2007, it grew faster than the US subprime housing market, and even when the US real-estate bubble burst and the global economy collapsed in 2008, the art market kept on growing. Eleven of the 20 highest prices ever paid for art at auction have occurred since then.

Investors, dealers and speculators often buy art to “flip” it: paintings and sculptures are bought, then almost immediately resold for an easy profit. Even non-millionaires can join the boom by buying into one of 41 “art investment funds” worldwide or by investing as little as €10 ($13) in the Paris Art Exchange, since 2011 the world’s first stock exchange for art.

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Chuck Close portraits sell for millions of euros. This one cost €300.


According to interviews with New York dealers carried out by art economist Don Thompson, the rules of art investing are simple: horizontal landscapes make more money than vertical ones; roosters sell better than chickens; pictures with flowers are worth more than pictures with fruit; spaniels outprice dachshunds; and human nudes are the most prized of all.

The day after Rothko’s White Center made history, Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car I) sold for US$71.72 million, the second highest price paid for a post-war painting. The same image, made using the same process (silkscreen printing an enlarged photograph), can be bought for about $50 on a street corner in Dafen, China, a town where the art-copying industry accounts for 60 percent of the world’s annual output of commercial oil paintings. One painting is a million times more valuable than the other, but few experts will tell you which is which. An error could cost a fortune in lawsuits, which is why Chinese auction houses are among those forbidden by law from claiming that the art they sell is genuine, and the Andy Warhol Foundation refuses to say whether any artwork is an authentic Warhol or not. The stakes are simply too high.


From the pages of COLORS #85 - Going to Market.