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The Digital Skeptic: What If the Art Market Was the Model for All Markets?

Stocks in this article: BID

Unlike financial markets, art markets work.
Here comes the digital-age investor big think: In spite of this wanton violation of every supposed bedrock notion of modern narrative-based digital asset pricing and exchange -- where more disclosure, more information and, geez, more trading is seen as a positive -- the process of selling art, as out of date as it appears, is as good as it gets when it comes to trading in this collapsing digital age.

"Everyone makes money," Lelong-Mainaud told me with a wink. "I will always be doing this."

A quick look around shows the source of her optimism. Yes, parts of the art market are soft. Sotheby's, for example, saw total revenues drop by 8% for 2012, year over year. But plenty of art trading is stout. So-called private trading in art, which essentially happens away from public auction, grew by about 10%. And the blockbuster deals just keep coming. Sotheby's recently sold a medium-level 18th century Italian masterwork, Susanna and the Elders, for $11.4 million, exceeding the pre-sale estimate by roughly 20%.

Good luck trying to match this sense of prosperity in the art market with the larger modern financial markets.

The hallowed New York Stock Exchange is suffering the indignity of being sold to a discount trading outfit called ICE, based in Atlanta for heaven's sake. Whispers swirl that the equally storied Chicago Board Options Exchange is on the block. And the mold of bearishness is even wafting out of high-tech markets like the Nasdaq OMX Group.

"Since decimalization and new market regulations effectively squeezed the margins -- and the potential for graft -- out of the system during the last decade," wrote David Weidner over at MarketWatch, "the business of running a stock-trading marketplace became a sideline."

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