What was the art market like during the real roaring twenties? History offers some lessons as we enter another decade of decadence


Gertrude Stein held lively salons in Paris. Diego Rivera traveled from Mexico City to Moscow to paint murals. Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, whose families moved north as part of the Great Migration, fueled the vibrancy of the Renaissance from Harlem to New York.

The 1920s were when “the world of modern art began to crystallize,” said Veronique Burke, director of Christie’s Education. And the modern art market too. Paris was the industry’s undeniable epicenter: emerging dynamic at the start of the decade after a downturn in World War I, the city hosted record-breaking auctions of the New York attorney’s art-filled estate. John Quinn as well as the artist Edgar Personal collection of Degas.

Peggy Guggenheim (standing) with famous British artist Mina Loy in Paris. (Photo by George Rinhart / Corbis via Getty Images)

In the primary market, sales were typically negotiated through powerful reviews from dealers operating primarily between Paris, Berlin and New York. Picasso and Matisse have contracts with the dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard who, alongside the Rosenberg brothers, organized the first “blue chip” galleries on the Right Bank.

“We have a similar set of players in Paris as we do today – artists, dealers, collectors, academics – only the power is starting to shift between who drives the tastes of the market,” Burke explained. “In the 2020s, the curator can play the role that the dealer once played by having the confidence of collectors. And only 10 years ago, the collector may have even played a more powerful role than the curator. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 20th century, all these actors came together around the problem of promoting an art that no longer corresponded to the traditional canons of taste, and these actors set themselves up to promote new ideas on the role of l art in culture.

John D. Rockefeller reunited family members including Abby Rockefeller.  (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

John D. Rockefeller reunited family members including Abby Rockefeller. (Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

The decade also marks the beginning of a major change: the rise of the American collector. In the midst of European wars and revolutions, the US dollar was stronger than it had ever been before. In 1926, the franc crisis meant that AmericaCollectors like the chemist and businessman Albert C. Barnes could buy Modiglianis on the Right Bank by truck.

The sale in 1926 at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris of the impressive collection of avant-garde and impressionist art by American lawyer John Quinn marked the complete entry of the American professional class onto the international collectors scene.

As design, fashion and architecture flourished in the Art Deco movement of the United States, the European Dada and Surrealist movements explored the human toll of World War I and expressed their disillusionment with preeminent European cultural forms. Quinn amassed the largest collection of works by these artists and advised in his will that upon his death the art should be sold in Paris lest it be too early for Americans to appreciate it.

Overall, the 1920s offered a brief window of high-energy stock market activity between the end of World War I and the stock market crash of 1929. American collectors, many of whom had begun to concentrate great wealth over the years. of the golden age of the 1880s (at the same time the European aristocrats saw their fortunes shrink), seized the opportunity.

Left: Sir Joseph Duveen in 1929 and American financier Andrew William Mellon, ca.  1920. (Photo by APIC / Getty Images)

Left: Sir Joseph Duveen in 1929 and American financier Andrew William Mellon, ca. 1920. (Photo by APIC / Getty Images)

The end of the 19th century also spawned what some might call the start of the megadealer. Sir Joseph Duveen stands out as defining the activities of the modern art dealer by organizing the beginnings of what remains the most prestigious collections in America. His family business sold a wide range of luxury items, including steamboats, furniture, tapestries and paintings by old masters, to clients such as William Randolph Hearst, Henry E. Huntington, Samuel H. Kress, Andrew Mellon, JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller Sr., and J. Paul Getty.

At the Berlin secession celebration banquet: writer Meier-Graefe, Ms. Hugo Simon, painter Eugen Spiro, art collector Fritz Schoen, Ms. Meier-Graefe, Ms. Spiro. (circa 1929) (Photo by bpk / Salomon / ullstein bild via Getty Images)

But scholars of the day say the changing taste also serves as a warning to avid collectors of today’s trends. “Many famous collectors of the early decades of the 20th century were first captivated by contemporary art and then turned their attention to older art,” said Inge Reist, director of the Center for the History of Collecting at the Frick Collection in New York. (Have you ever heard of John Hoppner or Ludwig Knaus? They were huge at the turn of the century.)

“While collectors of the golden age of the 21st century parallel their counterparts a century ago,” said Reist, “they should note that the art market, like all markets, is cyclical and that what is fashionable today may not be as popular tomorrow. “

A version of this article appeared in the Artnet Intelligence report fall 2021, available exclusively for Artnet News Pro members. To learn more about the tech tools set to revolutionize the art world, what the next generation of collectors are buying, and how much money NFTs make at auction houses, Download the full report here.

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