Money for creativity: have we always paid this much for art?

Art market is a global industry worth billions. Was it always like that? How much did a sculpture in Ancient Egypt cost? Was Michelangelo a rich man? Let’s find out!

Money for creativity: have we always paid this much for art?

The value of art

People started making art dozens of millennia ago: from engraving mammoth tusks to painting cave walls. What’s more, it is very likely that the emergence of art is intimately connected with the development of our brains.

As soon as civilizations emerged, we realized that art is something valuable. In many early societies—

Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Mexico, Rome, Japan, China, and India—art played a crucial role in representing religions and politics. Rulers used it to demonstrate wealth and power and inform society about specific values and messages.

Thus, early on, monumental art mainly was commissioned and sponsored by rulers. Smaller art forms, like pottery and jewelry, were bought and sold in an open market (in the modern sense of the word), outside the rulers’ patronage.

Artists self-portraits from Kizil Caves, 5th century CE

Being an artist was more or less always a respected occupation—but was it a well-paid job? Unfortunately, we don’t know much about early artists’ day-to-day life and the price of their work. But every minor detail will help us better understand the history of art pricing. 

Read on to discover how patronage developed over thousands of years and how Catholic Church became the great art buyer. After that, we will trace the emergence of modern art institutions—museums, critics, auctions—and their influence on today’s art market.

Artist’s life in ancient cultures

Let’s examine some of the early cultures whose art we still admire today. 

For example, an artist or an architect in Ancient Egypt was an upper-class occupation. As all art served pharaohs and priests, artists were rather trained artisans and craftsmen working in groups than individualistic creative individuals of the modern age. The credit for their work belonged to the one who commissioned their work—most commonly the pharaoh. 

The Great Sphinx in Giza—probably the most famous piece of Ancient Egyptian monumental art—was built for pharaoh Khafre, who commissioned it around 2500 BCE. We don’t know anything about the people who actually designed and carved it.

Pyramids, temples, palaces, and other monumental projects required entire “artist villages,” in which stonemasons, sculptors, carvers, and painters lived with their families. For example, Deir el-Medina near the famous Valley of Kings was continuously inhabited by many builders and decorators from about 1500 to 1000 BCE. It was usually a well-run place with lucrative wages. 

Curiously, the first workers’ strike recorded in history also happened in Deir el-Medina around 1200 BCE: rations had been delayed for several weeks, forcing the laborers to buy wheat and beer with their own money. One day, they threw away their tools and walked out of their jobs, sitting down before the village elders and writing a letter to the pharaoh’s vizier about their grievances. The authorities addressed their issues and the work resumed the next day.

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