The art of oligopoly

Here’s an interesting example of oligopoly – one you probably haven’t considered before. It’s the art market. And it’s not just one market, but a whole pyramid of markets. At the bottom are the ‘yearning masses’ of penny-poor artists, from students to those struggling to make a living from their art, with studios in their attic, garden shed or kitchen table. At the top of the pyramid are those very few artists that can earn fantastic sums of money by selling to collectors or top galleries. Then there are all the layers of markets in between, where artists can earn everything from a modest to a reasonable income.

The pyramid is itself depicted as a work of art, which you can see in the linked article below. It’s worth studying this piece of art carefully as well as reading the article.

A guide to the market oligopoly system Reuters, Felix Salmon (28/12/10)


  1. Identify the increasing barriers to entry as you work up the art market pyramid.
  2. Are there any other market imperfections in the art market that you can identify from the diagram?
  3. What are the key differences between the ‘primary market, tier 1’, the ‘primary market, tier 2’ and ‘the secondary market’?
  4. Are artists ‘rational maximisers’? If so, what is it they are trying to maximise? If not, why not?
  5. How would you set about determining the ‘worth’ of a piece of art? How do possible future value of a piece of art determine its present value?