Yesterday, Mark Sharp of Invermere, B.C. wrote, “I was in a gallery looking at a large painting by a living artist. With no dramatic message or spiritual awakenings, it was just a really nice painting — and it was priced at $24,000.00. It probably took the painter one or two days. On the same wall was another same-size painting by another living artist. It was equally well executed, of similar effort, but priced at $6,000.00. Both artists are the same age with similar educational backgrounds. Why the vast price difference? Is it an artist’s mystique, proven sales record, better marketing, or what?”
Thanks, Mark. Art pricing has to do with control. Artists who seek professional status should not be seen selling their work irregularly or at lower prices. Dealers (and artists) who control supply are better able to control demand. Scarcity is important. That $6,000 artist may be three times as prolific as the other guy. Another consideration is location. If an artist offers work in barber shops or less prestigious galleries he cannot expect to get the same kind of prices as in high-end commercial venues. Further, artists whose work is exhibited in public museums or loaned out from significant private collections can be expected to demand more.
There’s another factor that’s a bit harder to quantify. The higher-priced painter may just happen to be the better painter. Artists whose work is of higher quality (or merely consistently marketable) are sought out by leading galleries. Further, dealers have a collective interest in seeing an artist’s prices escalate, thus adding the sniff of investment to an otherwise mostly emotional purchasing decision. For the artist, a few years of 10-20 percent annual price increases leads to eventual high prices.
Serious artists have an obligation to themselves to secure a strong cash flow so money worries are left behind. Travel, study, challenge, exploration and even down-time can be expensive, but they are the life blood of creativity.
My democratic inbox is frequently loaded with questions on prices, marketing strategy, recession ploys, distribution and sales methodology. One might conclude that art is a branch of economics. While the burden of money will forever be with us, quality is still ahead of whatever is in second place. That’s why artists need to go to their rooms. Quality needs to be made. But please don’t ask me to define “quality.” With the exception of markets based on unnatural spin and hype, quality (whatever it is) is often the harbinger of higher prices.
PS: “Nowadays nothing but money counts: a fortune brings honors, friendships; the poor man everywhere lies low.” (Ovid 43 BC – AD 17)
Esoterica: Younger and early-career artists need to enter the market at prices low enough to tempt collectors, but high enough to make it worthwhile for potential dealers. Even dealerless artists need to keep this in mind when laying the groundwork for a career in art. Everyone loves a penny stock that goes up. “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” (Warren Buffett)
Talent not always a factor
by H Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA
Price is also factored by race, gender of the artist and “congruency” with the prevailing myth of what’s good. Having just seen the movie, “The Radiant Child,” it is clear that Andy Warhol, a chic if rebellious white man, trumped Jean-Michel Basquiat, a seminal influence of our times, in collectability. Furthermore, almost without exception, white men demand and get higher prices than women artists. Talent is not a factor until the woman is very old or dead like Agnes Martin or Georgia O’Keeffe.
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by Mario Engel, Cape Town, South Africa
I’m just starting out as an artist. I read the part where you spoke about the two different paintings and their values. Because I’m not known yet, some people value the attached painting at R50,000 ($7,000.00) and say the least I can ask for it is R20,000. ($2,840.00) If possible can you perhaps give me your opinion?
(RG note) Thanks, Mario. It’s been my observation that smallish paintings or drawings that are very dependent on photography, no matter how well rendered, have difficulty finding homes in the best of times. While there are exceptions, artists are more frequently rewarded for the imagination they bring to their subjects. On the other hand, if your painting of Nelson Mandela was twelve feet by eight feet and happened to be in someone’s National Gallery, there would likely be people who thought it to be quite valuable. Perhaps some of our readers might like to put a more exact value on your work.
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It’s all about marketing
by Judy Singer, Toronto, ON, Canada
I think you are off the mark with this one. I would highly recommend the book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of the Art World by Don Thompson. Pricing has nothing to do with quality, skill, supply or demand. It has to do with marketing and with what wealthy collectors perceive to be return on investment. A lot of collectors and dealers don’t know what quality is.
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But is it fair?
by Peggy Kopkie, Battleground, WA, USA
You raised some good points in your letter. Too often I see people calling themselves “artists” who paint a few paintings, are just starting classes, and immediately consider their art marketable. I’ve found that to claim the title of “artist” a person should learn their skill and pay their dues to become a creditable art seller. What is your idea of a credible artist asking a lot for an early painting? What about trying to pass yourself off as an artist in a gallery with other artists? Do you feel it is fair to those who work hard to create a great piece with the knowledge of composition, color, etc.?
(RG note) Thanks, Peggy. Ours is a democratic business. Remarkably unskilled “artists” are seen to rise into the economic stratosphere quite regularly. As Marshall McLuhan said when asked for a definition of art, “Art is what you can get away with.”
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The high value of caring
by Ken Paul, Eugene, OR, USA
I’ll wager that you and many of your subscribers can remember reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Persig. A major point of inquiry being undertaken by that text is about what we generally call “quality.” Everyone acknowledges that it exists, but nobody can say with any degree of objectivity what it IS. I recall coming away from that book with the lingering impression that “quality” — even though not directly definable — had something to do with deep caring, particularly in a given context, whether that be fixing a motorcycle or making art. And, furthermore, that this caring remained somehow embodied in the thing being cared for/about, still accessible to whichever other souls were able/willing to invest some of their own caring into the experience. Of course, it turns out to be the viewer’s own caring that generates the experience! One reviewer of the book noted that Persig’s take on quality (“…the indescribable that exists before description…”) matches closely with the conception of Allah in Sufism.
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Sticker price shock
by Teresa Chow, Vancouver, BC, Canada
When I go into galleries, I always get a sticker price shock. At times, a painting has a list price of over $10,000 and it’s not even framed. Who are the qualified artists who deserve to have a price tag like this? I remember hearing an artist saying, “Nowadays, anyone that can hold a paint brush call themselves an artist.” He continued to say, “In the olden days of Rembrandt, the first few years of apprenticeship is just grinding paint and you watch and learn from thereon; an apprenticeship program runs maybe 12 years long.” Lucky for us, we don’t have to grind paint anymore — squeeze the tube and voila, there’s paint. But do artists really deserve such high price tags? I can’t seem to find a quality standard line in the galleries anymore. Another artist told me that his paintings have to be up in the thousands range as they are driven by the buyers. Is this a valid statement?
(RG note) Thanks, Teresa. Part of the mystique of art is the high prices. Diamonds would not be thought of highly if they were commonplace and cheap. And yet they are just tiny little sparkly things barely distinguishable from glass.
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A whole new market
by Darla Tagrin, Montgomery Village, MD, USA
I know your column is directed mainly to fine artists rather than commercial artists, but many of us are both. Have you ever looked into the relatively new phenomenon of e-books (digital books that are bought and sold online)? The May 8 Washington Post “Arts” section has a large article about writers who sell their books online rather than going to a traditional publisher. The royalties are so much larger proportionately for e-books that some established writers are dropping their publishers. Many of these books are self-published, and they all need cover images. I’ve seen many posts about how hard it is to find good cover artists at a reasonable price. The “covers” are often more like logos in one sense: they will be shown as postage-stamp sized images online, but must also be detailed enough to look good on a Kindle, Nook or other e-reader.
I’m thinking that there is a whole new market waiting to be discovered. It sort of reminds me of the heyday of pulp fiction, with a lot of writers and artists making livings from books. Some writers just cobble up a cover on Photoshop, but you still need a good visual sense to do a cover that will get people interested enough to buy the book, and a painterly cover will suit many books better than photos and type alone. For prolific painters, it could be a great addition to your market.
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Riding out the storm
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
This ageless question is the balance between survival and price. Price is the proxy for artistic respect but survival depends on how long you have to wait for Aretha’s mantra. The value of something is only what people who are exposed to it will pay. To be fair to collectors and galleries, the artist must wait to get the going price but that requires a survival Plan B. Galleries can help by promoting the art to the right market — but Plan B provides the income to sustain life and family while allowing the artist to be true to the art and not “sell out” too cheap. How long can an artist afford to “starve” until the right buyer comes along at that right price? That’s another riddle but if your Plan B is solid, stick it out and just paint to become a better artist! For a meteorologist, there is weather everyday (and you don’t even have to be right) so just ride out the storm until your work sells.
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Art by the bag
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Artist A had the crust and ego to put a $24,000 price tag on his painting. A buyer had the money and either the foolishness or wisdom to pay that much for it. Artist B and his representatives lacked the same ego and chutzpah and priced their work at $6,000. Was that painting 25% as good? Such an assumption would be based on a rational quantifiable system that doesn’t exist. The cheaper painting much of the time could be a better painting. A Van Gogh painting might bring fifty million dollars at auction while a Sargent might bring a million. Is Van Gogh a fifty times better artist than John Singer Sargent, or Delacroix, or Ingres or Michelangelo? Is it because he did fewer paintings or his work hangs in a better neighborhood? Come on, Robert. Much of the art pricing has a lot in common with the pile of manure behind my neighbor’s horse barn. I am a flower gardener so the stuff has value to me. If it’s refined and packaged well it might bring $5 a bag. Someone might claim it had mystical powers and sell it for a hundred bucks a scoop and someone might pay it. I’m not fooled. That’s about the level of science I see in art pricing. Unfortunately, art buyers often have a similar opinion.
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What else is there?
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
My first painting sales were American Eagles on barn wood! This was during the Viet Nam War. Eagles and flags. This crap helped me to pay my way through college. I learned that I could be an art whore, and sell crap. I gave that up, even though I made quite a bit of money. I actually took a higher road. I kept painting, but never worried about selling anything. I took an art job working in a museum. I turned that into a career, and then, quite by accident I started selling my paintings. My paintings were bringing in more than my job as curator but I kept my job. My gallery sold to another owner and I was out. My point is that I do not want to be financially dependent on my art. I want my art to be my art. Do I paint in my spare time? Yes. Do I make the exact paintings I wish to see in the world? Yes. In my view, my painting is mine. I have sold a lot of it, but it is still mine. What else is there?
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Beach Shack, Drayton Peninsula
oil painting 18 x 24 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Terry McIlrath who wrote, “Asking price means nothing. Selling price means everything.”
And also G. S. Silverstone of Rugby, UK, who wrote, “No matter what, you must raise your prices regularly but a little.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The art price mystery…