Though the origins of the practice are uncertain, some have traced it back to the mid-1800s, when red stars began to be placed next to sold artworks at the annual summer exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Despite this, some allege that it’s an American tradition. Eventually, the star became a circle, and later, iterations emerged.
“I saw the red dots when I began to visit art galleries in the mid-’70s,” said Patrice Cotensin, a director at Galerie Lelong
in Paris. “It seemed to be a ‘rule,’ with also the green dot (or a half of red one) for a work ‘on hold.’” Multiple red dots can be used in the case of prints and other works that have several editions.
In the past decade, use of red dots has widely been considered in poor taste, particularly among Americans. In her bestselling book from 2008, Seven Days in the Art World, Sarah Thornton writes of Art Basel in Switzerland, “There are no prices or red dots on the wall. Such an overt gesture at commerce is considered tacky.”
The rejection of an “overt gesture of commerce” comes, ironically, as the prices for art have floated into the stratosphere. This is another reason that contributes to the disappearance of the red dot: As prices have risen, the level of discretion demanded by buyers has climbed in tandem. Another explanation traces their demise to the post-financial crisis period, when sales were volatile and few dealers wanted to broadcast their travails.
“The red dot display system does lay oneself open when sales have not been made, which may be the reason some galleries have dropped the use of red dots in recent years, during a more turbulent market,” said Emma Ward, managing director of Dickinson
But among European dealers, red dots are used more frequently. “I know that many American art dealers consider the ‘red dot’ as highly vulgar,” Cotensin said. At Galerie Lelong in Paris, red dots are used in gallery exhibitions. “In Europe we don’t have this feeling, except for European art dealers who want to appear as ‘American-style’ business people.” Unsurprisingly, Lelong’s New York gallery (located among fellow leading galleries in Chelsea) does not use red dots.