Economic doom and gloom in Yurope has the coineys over in the US rubbing their hands with glee. They have been banging on for the last couple of months about how Greece and Italy could resolve their 'eurozone' financial problems by the simple expedient of emptying their museum storerooms onto the market and letting private collectors buy the formerly state property (assets) and use the cash raised to pay off their collective debts. According to the BBC, Greece's debt is 340 billion (UK billion 000 000 000) euros. If the US has a population of 312 700 000, that means that to allow this model to function, EACH and every US citizen would have to buy antiquities or work of art to the value of 1091 euros (1453 dollars).
Also according to the BBC, Italy needs 400bn next year to "refinance maturing debt, finance the deficit and pay interest". To pay for that for this year alone, EACH US citizen would have to fork out another 1710 on antiquities and works of art from their museum storerooms.
Of course they'd have to pay more, because the cost of selecting and deaccessioning the works to be sold off would have to be paid for, then packing it, cataloguing it, putting it on sale, the costs of safe transport to the dealer who will market it, insurance during transit. Then the dealer's overheads. And of course we cannot imagine ANY dealer selling a single one of these items without supplying proper paperwork detailing its legitimate origin and transport out of the country, and we all know how much dealers say THAT will cost them to produce. For every thousand dollars earned by Italy and Greece by this means, it seems the end buyer will have to contribute a considerably greater sum.
Now I am sure the dealers in such things would be very happy if suddenly (for the problems of Greece and Italy are urgent) 700 billion euros worth of antiquities and works of art suddenly appeared on the market for them to profit from. Those collectors who already have such items in their collections (maybe bought as a nest egg investment) might not be so happy, as their value would plummet as the market is flooded with quality goods.
But then how BIG is the art market? There is quite a nice Art Market Monitor article on that topic by Marion Maneker from October 1, 2009 which suggests that the short answer is "that the best guess at the size of the art market in 2008 would be $40 billion". Since then of course there has been expansion of the market maybe, but then a recession. The longer answer to the question “what’s a healthy level for the art market, especially in these difficult times?”– is "probably around $15 billion worldwide" (which as somebody pointed out is "puts it roughly on par with the pet food industry").
So, if these estimates (and there are others) give something like a realistic assessment of the size of the market, in order to raise money through the sales of art works "liberated" from state collections to pay off the debts of these two Eurozone countries, the market would have to expand between twenty (generous estimate) and 46 times to accommodate them - not only that, in order for the buyers to not lose money, it would have to be maintained at that higher level indefinitely. It seems to me that before such a move is even contemplated it would be useful to see the ACCG's thoughts on a business plan whereby the size of the art market as a whole can be increased 46 times in the sort time needed to achieve the effects they propose.
Of course this has been done before, for example the Bolsheviks sold off items from the state collections to finance their repressive regime, many of them ending up in US public collections where they remain to this day (Anne Odom, Wendy R. Salmond (Eds) 2009, 'Treasure into Tractors: The Selling of Russia's Cultural Heritage, 1918-1938, University of Washington Press). It seems some antiquity dealers would like to see the return of the days of the Robber Barons.