Bargaining over Beauty: The Economics of Contracts in Renaissance Art Markets

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We study contracting practices in the market for paintings in Renaissance Italy. Building on insights from the economic analysis of contracts and qualitative analysis of primary sources, we first show that transaction costs threatened the relationship between buyer—the patron—and seller—the painter. We empirically investigate the channels through which transaction costs influenced contracting practices using a novel data set measuring the content and structure of 90 commission documents from the later 13th to the early 16th century. We find strong evidence that patrons used formal contracts to mitigate painters’ opportunism but little evidence that artists’ age-related reputation for honest dealing had a systematic effect on contracting practices.

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