Venice Biennale for sale

The Venice Biennale is one of the institutions of art with the highest capability to legitimate the reputation of an artist. It is therefore inevitably linked to the market, even if  it’s used to preach purity and autonomy – perhaps in good faith . So, why don’t reopen the sales office?

When the Venice Biennale was founded in 1895, one of the main goals was to create a market for contemporary art a collecting for it. Immediately has been made a sales office, which held a 10% commission on the sale price of the exhibited works, obtaining such a success that the organizers were able to donate a portion of the proceeds for charity. These transactions can be found in the books of the Historical Archive of the Biennale, with the registrations of the sold works, the buyers and the selling prices.

Claudia Gian Ferrari, on his essay “The sales in Biennale 1920-1950. Notes for a history of taste through the analysis of the market”, used these data to analyze year after year the growth of the sales, from the First World War to 1950, through the years when her father was the head of this office. It should be noted that the transformation of the choices of collecting, from the more anchored to the canons of the Nineteenth Century and his academic features, to the opening to the contemporary art scene, with many contradictions looking at them now. For example, in the Biennale of 1922, Modigliani, Bonnard and Monet, to name a few, did not have any success, even Carrà, who will have to wait until 1928 to see four works purchased by the Italian museums. In 1930, even Klee, Moore, Ernst and Hopper did not have any feedback yet on the market.

To give some quantitative example, in the first Biennale after the war, 1920, 682 of the 1,805 works on display were sold, of which 263 Italian and 419 foreign, for a total of 2,628,747 lire. For all the ‘20s, the percentages of the works sold were 10-15% of the total exhibited, with a slump in 1930 after the crisis of the 1929. In this edition, the Gallery of Modern Art in Milan bought a still life of Morandi for 2,200 lire, very little compared to 9,000 for Casorati and Romanelli.

Until that time the main buyers were private collectors, Italians, with a small percentage of public and private institutions. From the ‘30s, a new trend was emerging: the museums will be the main buyers and the attention will begin to focus on De Pisis, de Chirico, Casorati, Depero and the Futurists. Also, the foreign museums made their first appearance, most notably the Whitney Museum and the National Gallery in Berlin, interested in the Italian art. From 1942 the head of the sales office was Ettore Gian Ferrari, thanks to whom they arrived to double the sales after many years of decrease, totalling 3,715,286 lire in that edition. He gained too a percentage of the sales, 2% on the percentage due to the Biennale, that in the meantime had been raised at  15%. Also, thanks to his personality, the private collector prevailed on the purchased, the 76% of the total.


In 1968, the protests of the students and of the intellectuals hammered away this office of the Biennale, accused of being a vehicle of the capitalism. On the other hand, it began to take shape a market structure where the artists were introduced to the Biennale by the dealers, who personally negotiating with museums and collectors. The market has never been out of the spaces of the Biennale, it simply moved the gains in favour of the dealers, losing the opportunity to gain for the organization.

In 1993, Achille Bonito Oliva proposed to reopen the sales office. In support of the initiative, a research of the University of Venice showed that from 1895 and 1914 the Biennale has earned the equivalent of about 40 billions of lire in 1993. The office has not been reopened, but business is still going brilliant for the galleries representing artists in Venica: in 2007 the White Cube has sold most of the works of Tracey Emin in the British pavilion before the opening; in 2011 the majestic candle by Urs Fischer reproducing the sculpture of  Giambologna was sold before the opening for more than $ 3 million. In 2003 Victoria Miro built a sales office in front of the British Pavilion: at the reception point you could buy the limited editions by Chris Ofili, made specifically for the event, in limited edition of 350 copies, priced at 500 Euros.

In 2009, Paolo Baratta tried to emphasize the autonomy of the Biennale from the market, whose role “is not to report the trend of the market, but to look at where the artists are going, and where the world is going through the art”. While he was saying these words, the national pavilions were full of dealers doing their job. If this year Bartolomeo Pietromarchi has launched an initiative of crowdfounding for the Italian Pavilion, the restoration of a sales office to retain a percentage of the gain of the gallery owners would not be an idea to discard …

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