The European Guilds by Sheilagh Ogilvie

The European Guilds by Sheilagh Ogilvie

Author:Sheilagh Ogilvie
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 2018-10-22T00:00:00+00:00


In another special case, guild sales rooms are proposed as the key to solving information asymmetries about product quality. Maarten Prak argues that the market for paintings in medieval and early modern Europe was threatened with collapse because of information asymmetries between producers and consumers, along the lines of the analysis mapped out by George Akerlof for the modern used-car business.102 Compulsory guilds sales rooms, Prak contends, solved this problem by displaying the range and quality of output and enabling customers to make comparisons. This prevented a “buyers’ strike”, thereby helping create the “golden age” of Flemish painting in the fifteenth century and Dutch painting in the seventeenth.103

Although Prak invokes Akerlof’s analysis, the quality problem differs fundamentally between paintings and used cars. The problem with paintings is not that producers have information about quality which consumers do not, but rather that neither producers nor consumers know the “true” quality. The quality of a painting is based not on the objective quality of the paint and canvas but on the subjective preferences of potential buyers, which are in turn influenced by factors such as aesthetic responses, social esteem, and resale value. Prak does not explain how information concerning the aesthetic attractiveness, social esteem value, or resale potential of a painting was conveyed to potential consumers more effectively by a guild sales room than a painter’s studio, trade fair, public market, retailer’s shop, public auction, raffle, or lottery—all of which operated as market outlets for paintings in this period.

Nor do empirical findings on the pre-modern European market for paintings show guild sales rooms excelling in conveying such information. For one thing, guild sales rooms were very rare. They were all but unknown outside the market for paintings, and even there existed only in the Netherlands. The qualitative database contains 36 observations of European towns with painters’ guilds, shown in Table 6.4. Such guilds were indeed widespread in the Northern and Southern Netherlands, which together account for 47 per cent of observations in Table 6.4, significantly more than their 12 per cent share of the overall guilds database.104 But painters’ guilds were also plentiful in Spain, which accounts for one-quarter of observations, significantly more than its 6.4 per cent share of the guilds database. Yet the numerous Spanish painters’ guilds, although powerful, did not operate sales rooms. England, France, Germany, and Italy also had painters’ guilds, but no guild sales rooms.


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