Appeal and provenance

Dear Artist, Quite a few letters come my way from artists asking how they might go about marketing a body of work. These days, jpegs often show mysticism, spirituality and other unique visions. Many artists have put their hearts and souls into it, often over a considerable period of time. They need to see some acceptance, if not some greens. “After all this effort,” wrote one lady, “I need really obscene prices.” Many of these artists have never had gallery representation and have sold only intermittently to friends and neighbors. Some have placed great hope in the Internet, only to be disappointed. It’s often difficult for me to tell people that no matter how worthy they might think their work is, it will probably not gain much acceptance in any venue. At the same time, some art that comes my way carries with it a high degree of natural appeal. This sort of work is an art dealer’s dream — stuff that flies off the wall without having to be talked up. I know what you’re thinking — no, it’s not always the trendy or safe art seen in bargain meat-hook galleries. Natural-appeal art can actually be quite different: modern, inventive or even spiritual and mysterious. Fact is, it has some sort of a built-in trigger that causes folks to express themselves with their wallets. But funnily, most natural-appeal art is price challenged. That is, it can’t always achieve obscene prices. Appeal-art is most dependent on the eyes of the beholder. To get obscene prices you need provenance. This means critical approval, applied journalism, promotion, advertising, big dealer commissions and perhaps the appearance of participation in a movement or a greater cause. No matter the merits of the work, a lot of informed insiders up the ante. Further, there’s a funny phenomenon that happens with high-provenance art. It comes from a quirk in human nature. With its magical, mystical nature, art can be very much like some religions — the more preposterous the claim and unlikely the story, the easier it becomes to find a convert. Find two converts and you have a market. Find a group of converts and you have a movement. My frequent advice to spiritual, mystical painters is to link their work to a worthy cause. Best regards, Robert PS: “That which costs little is less valued.” (Miguel De Cervantes) Esoterica: The accumulation of art that is going nowhere can be a significant problem. Compulsive workers may need placement even more than green feedback. Destinations other than galleries might be considered. Sometimes deals can be cut for foyers of office buildings, apartments, hospitals, etc. After trying every commercial venue she could think of, one subscriber found a benefactor willing to pay for more than 200 frames. She proceeded to thematically decorate and enhance an elderly-care home. Visitors now cruise the legendary halls, much to the amazement of the residents.   Go for unique by Liron Sissman, New York, NY, USA  

“Hudson River at Boscobe”
oil painting 16 x 12 inches
by Liron Sissman

You are right. Provenance is key. I remember reading about two paintings by the same artist that were considered to be identical. Both paintings happened to show up in major auction houses within a year of each other. One of them sold for some 15 times the price of the other because it belonged to a lawyer who won a national case shortly before the auction making him a celebrity. Personally, I go for a unique vision and I work to create provenance. My painting Hudson River at Boscobel was just selected for Kate Hudson’s apartment in Something Borrowed (forthcoming 2011).     There is 1 comment for Go for unique by Liron Sissman
From: jeannine — Jun 29, 2010

congrats!!! it’s beautiful!!!

  The ‘no-show’ stack by Lawrence Klepper, Long Beach, CA, USA   I had a gentleman interested in purchasing my watercolor paintings. We arranged a time for him to come to the studio to review paintings. About an hour before he was to arrive I went into the studio and started to separate a group of paintings in two stacks, one stack to show him and another stack to put away because I did not think it was work he’d be interested in. He arrived early and walked into the studio only to have the stack I wasn’t going to show him directly in front of him. He proceeded to go through the ‘no-show’ stack, selected three works and proceeded to buy them from me. He never looked at the original stack I intended to show him. Lesson learned: What I think are the ‘sellable’ works are not necessarily the sellable works. What we think are the good ones are not necessarily the sellable ones. Now when people show an interest I show them what’s available without my input as to what I think they will want.   Must be relevant by Jim Tubb, Waterloo, ON, Canada  

“Central Park in 50 years”
acrylic painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Jim Tubb

I have representation at David Kaye Gallery in Toronto but realize it is just one small facet if I ever want obscene prices. I think you try to be who you are and hope that the commitment and the sincerity of your journey will have some relevance to the present. And that people believe you. I believe one paints from the heart and reflects whatever it is in a serious light. It must be relevant and an observation about what is taking place in my brain right now.   There is 1 comment for Must be relevant by Jim Tubb
From: Liz Reday — Jul 06, 2010

Your painting is tremulous, original and intriguing. I want to see more! I believe you speak the truth in your words and back them up by the individual point of view expressed in this painting. You give me faith to persevere in my own work.

  It’s apples and oranges by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada  

“Elemental Landscape”
oil painting, 72 x 48 inches
by Brigitte Nowak

There are many artists who paint, some who paint well and some who have original and brilliant ideas. But there is a disconnect when they expect that their ability to create a decent painting entitles them to “obscene” prices for their work. When the work leaves the studio, price is determined by the marketplace and there is no correspondence between the quality of the work and the market’s value of it. Artists who equate “effort” and “obscene prices” are missing the boat between intrinsic and extrinsic worth: it’s apples and oranges. Painters should focus on creating the best work they can. That is what they can control. For sure, they should also try to find venues where their work can find an audience (paintings kept under the bed are therapy, not art). I get annoyed at the sense of entitlement some artists have. Once the work is out there, its value is determined by people willing to spend money that they too worked hard for. There are 6 comments for It’s apples and oranges by Brigitte Nowak
From: Rick Rogers — Jun 28, 2010

“Once the work is out there, its value is determined by people willing to spend money that they too worked hard for.” Yes and no. If you price it too high the value is determined by people not willing to spend their money. If you price it too low you have undervalued your work. The trick of course is finding the highest price at which it will sell! Despite the fact that there is no direct correlation between quality and market value, there is no surer way to deflate your work’s perceived value than by pricing it too low!

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 29, 2010

I get annoyed at the sense of entitlement everybody has- just look around at our entire consumerist culture. The artists in the medium I work in are primarily women. As Robert has indicated- his groupies are to a large extent- women. Several years ago I went to an exhibit I was juried into and wrote down the size and price of every single piece that got in that exhibit. Then I went home and did the math and published for all to see everyone’s self-value as based on a square foot price. No matter what price you intentionally put on a piece- you can do the math in reverse and therefore find out what you think you are worth at the square foot level. While my piece was not the most expensive per sq ft- it was in the top 5 out of around 60 pieces. All fiber work has a lot of time invested in it- and no piece had an obscene price on it- and I was the only male in the show. Unfortunately- I really had to hammer on all these self-defeating women- where their prices were so ridiculously low that they dragged down the intrinsic value of everybody’s work- because their self-worth was so obscenely disgusting. My solo show just came down. Many of my artist friends came to either the opening or the closing. The venue took no commission so I removed 30% from my retail price- and said so on every ticket- and still explained I would negotiate. Again and again my artist friends commented on how well-priced my work was as it related to my self-value and the recognition of just how much physical labor had gone into the work- during these difficult recessionary times. And by the end of the show I’d sold a third piece- which puts me into a new and never-before-experienced sales reality. If a person thinks her prices have to be obscene to compensate her for her time/effort/work- I’d suggest she take 30 years or more to find out just how long it can take to succeed- and then just hope for reasonable prices- while she’s still alive. But ALL WOMEN need to rethink their artwork’s value and compare what they think their art is worth to what they think THEY are worth- because the two values are so intertwined they cannot be separated.

From: david thompson — Jun 30, 2010

Ouch! someone has a few personal issues to resolve I think! Slightly confused message here is there not? People, (no sorry, women!) who put low prices on their work have “disgustingly” low self esteem, but you, who of course recognise your own genius, can put on your price tags “30% off and I’m willing to haggle further”! Do you have any mirrors at home?

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 30, 2010

Hey David- the entire Universe is my mirror- thanks. After working in a medium dominated by women for more than 30 years- I finally walked away from the group- because they remain firmly entrenched in both how much they think they are entitled to- and how low their self-esteem is as it relates to how they price their work. My work is priced high- but it still has a gallery commission built into it- a negotiable amount when the venue isn’t taking a commission. And many years ago I did many years of self-healing work to get beyond the enormous destruction of my own self-esteem by a boorish and bullying religious and heterosexist cultural experience because I was- at a very early age- an (unacceptable despicable faggot) artist. At 56- after the untold tens of thousands of hours I’ve invested in manifesting my vision/work- and the regular and ongoing sacrifices I’ve made in order to continue producing- it’s finally paying off. And there are no obscene prices anywhere.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 30, 2010

I’m realizing- after the fact- that my original statement should have read- there were no obscenely high prices- but there were many obscenely LOW ones…

From: Jacquelyn Sloane Siklos — Jun 30, 2010

I too have been thinking a lot about pricing lately – for both photography and painting. Photography feels a little simpler – cost of print, plus 50 percent for gallery, plus 10-20 for me seems to land me at a price at which I think I would buy the piece. Also, there is usually more than just one, so it is not as emotionally wrenching to let go of a piece you love. Pricing painting is much harder. Underpriced, and you can’t even buy more paint, and overpriced and it just doesn’t sell. But I disagree that you have to sell work in order to be an artist (implied by the paintings under the bed). Van Gogh had a hard time selling in his lifetime (although he did try!) But I do agree that you should just focus on creating your best work…

  The inexpensive way by Doris Osbahr   Although the Internet does not present itself as an ideal venue for selling art, especially for unknown artists; it is an inexpensive way to for people to present themselves. A Webpage, Blog or even a space in Facebook is far more dynamic and inexpensive than a catalog or brochure. At the Venezuelan Watercolor Society we first set up our webpage followed by a workshop to teach some of our senior members to use the computer to at least be able to communicate with them via e-mail and more recently we set up our Blog, achieving several objectives: 1) Put our association on the virtual international map by having Web presence. We now get more invitations to international art exhibitions and contests and have participated in most enabling many of our artists to get some international exposure. 2) Stimulate our members to set up their own Web pages. 3) Promote communication between the association and its members and help the members access Web information on local and international art events (see our Blog). 4) Share knowledge (Web content).   Art is a business by Catherine Stock, France  

“Reclining nude”
watercolour sketch
by Catherine Stock

I was at art school in Cape Town with Marlene Dumas, reputedly the highest paid living woman artist at the moment. Although her work is powerful, has a definite statement about the human condition and is technically impressive, much of her success can be attributed to her representation by Charles Saatchi. Art is a business, like any other.   There are 2 comments for Art is a business by Catherine Stock
From: david thompson — Jun 30, 2010

Oh dear! “art is a business like any other” – can you imagine Van Gogh saying that!

From: Lisa — Jun 30, 2010

I agree Catherine, Art is a business for some, a passion combined with business to some and purely a passion to others. NONE of the above is “the wrong way to approach your art”. Personal and financial circumstances dictate most peoples placement, I would love to be passion only but do not have another income source to make this possible. Passion only people who growl are not better than everyone who treats their art as a business, just different. Geeeesh!! Van Gogh did try to sell his work in his lifetime even though failing miserably, so what was his intent? survival I would guess. Make painting + sell painting = the simplest business model I have ever seen. Why do some artists get all titchy when the word business is mentioned??

  Informed insiders by Lynda Davison, Covington, TN, USA  

original painting
by Lynda Davison

I had to laugh at the line, “The accumulation of art that is going nowhere…” I have only been painting on canvas for about 5 years. I have sold to friends and locals; tried the “gallery” promises and participated in a variety of art venues and events — only to find the “crafty” sales of purses, bows, and cotton candy were invited too. So yes, I have such an “accumulation.” One friend travels to art events, loading her van with lots of art and she sells fairly well. Another friend answers every “call to artists” she finds in the hopes of gaining some recognition and points for some big fancy art league in a city 40 miles away. Well, I haven’t done either, so I guess I have no right to complain about sales. I love doing the art and although I know I won’t make a lot of money at it, I can’t stop. At 63, I am thinking of taking some lessons one day, but who knows. I truly believe it takes more than talent; it takes those “informed insiders” whether art is good, great, or just preposterous. There are 2 comments for Informed insiders by Lynda Davison
From: Brigitte Nowak — Jun 28, 2010

Lovely painting! Excellent composition, appealing subject, contrast, realism and detail. I envy you your mastery – after only 5 years! If your major subject matter focuses on flowers, you may want to consider showing your work in venues where that subject is top of mind: perhaps subject-limited calls for artists, botanical gardens, even restaurants, or some galleries would welcome your work. If your subject matter is fairly broad, and reflects a general curiosity about the world, you may want to focus on a limited set of themes. I find that this helps me focus and improves the quality of my work (I hope!). Whatever you d, please continue – you’ve got talent, a great attitude, and obviously paint because you enjoy it – you go, girl!

From: Anonymous — Jul 01, 2010

Thanks so much, Brigitte, for your inspiring comments! Lynda

  Help with design needed by Gay Judson, San Antonio, TX, USA   Robert, I am now working my way through Richard Robinson’s “Mastering Color” course. Thank you for the suggestion. I am not a painter. But I would like to paint on my pots — I am a wanna-be potter. (Canadian potter Tony Clennell introduced me to your letter and I have been following it for several years now.) I have never studied art in school so the color course is filling a gap in my pottery skills. But I have another gap that I wonder if you can point me in a direction for help. Design. Robinson makes some references to design — but his is not a course on design. Do you have a recommendation for me? This is certainly a common concern for painters in whatever medium. (RG Note) Thanks, Gay. While there is certainly real value in Richard Robinson’s colour video, I have never felt so confident about the few design videos I have seen. Maybe I’m ignorant. Perhaps anyone knowing of such a video might send it along to me and we can study it here. In “Mastering Colour” we had a dozen artists, both masters and beginners; give it a thorough going over before I mentioned it. There are 3 comments for Help with design needed by Gay Judson
From: rainy burns — Jun 29, 2010

Tony Couch has great books and videos on design

From: Grace cowling, Grimsby. On. — Jun 29, 2010

So nice to see mention of Tony Clennell. A great potter and lives just along the road from me in the Niagara region. I’ve known Tony since he started his potter and unique firing on the Bruce Peninsula.

From: Jim Oberst — Jun 29, 2010
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Lake and Cathedral – Sunset

oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm by Peter Hobden

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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Appeal and provenance

From: Phyllis — Jun 25, 2010

I couldn’t agree more! Thank you for expressing the truth about selling art in a very kind way. If a person isn’t painting for their own enjoyment to begin with, there will be huge disappointments later when the work they’ve done for “the market” isn’t quickly snapped up for premium prices. In my limited experience, there will be no problem with selling a piece of artwork for a reasonable price once your heart has touched the heart of the viewer.

From: Dwight Williams — Jun 25, 2010

The thing that worked for me years ago was going to out door art festivals. There you can easily get your name out associated with your work. I don’t do this much any more and don’t know how things are in this economy. But it seems as if this would at least be a step in the right direction getting ready for better economic days. Actually we do have an artist friend who is doing very well now but she is working hard both painting and going to festivals.

From: Gavin Logan — Jun 25, 2010

If a painter cannot sell work through private, commercial galleries, there is little chance it will sell online. Unfortunately, this is the case.

From: Maxine Moser — Jun 25, 2010

This is the only time I like to see the word “obscene” used

From: Loraine Sutter — Jun 25, 2010

Unfortunately, in this world of fading traditional philosophies, and with its rise of vague spiritualities, a type of art has arisen that purports to be spiritual as well. Wishy washy sweeps of colour and impasto do not a spiritual painting make. This is a cop out. While people are free to put anything on canvas or paper that they may wish, they must not expect a lot of people (or curators) to take notice. Painters are not doing really spiritual humanistic work very much anymore because, except for a few, they cannot do it. They don’t have the skill or the imagination. One might hope that for those who do there may be rich rewards.

From: John Sullivan — Jun 25, 2010

We are all victimized by our cultures. Here in America we have expectations of easy entry and personal gratification. But opportunites for democratic acceptance may be dwindling, and more attention to professionalism may be in the future. Both built in appeal and careful provenance may now be needed.

From: Henry Kitchen — Jun 25, 2010

So “provenance” is not just the gallery history and ownership of a work of art, but all of the other things that have gone on in the past that may give someone the confidence to purchase. I would imagine an artist’s educational background (fine art degrees, etc.) would count as the provenance by some people for a given piece of art by that artist.

From: Darla — Jun 26, 2010

I disagree with Lorraine, who says that sweeps of color and impasto do not a spiritual painting make. Spirituality is in the eye and heart of the beholder. If you see it there, it is. However, if you don’t use any type of symbolism or figurative subject, it is much harder for the viewer to find a meaning there. One thing Robert didn’t mention is niche markets. There are many special interest groups in which a relative newcomer can find a market faster than in the general market or galleries. That’s one way to get provenance.

From: Anonymous — Jun 26, 2010

According to the dictionary, provenance means the source or origin of an object, and the history of ownership, or the records or documents authenticating such an object or its history of ownership.

From: Richard Ellenson — Jun 26, 2010

Provenance is all the bumph that helps a person make up his mind to buy an unknown piece of art.

From: Andree Lake — Jun 26, 2010

About the only thing that has knock em dead appeal is a portrait of the person who is looking at the work. Unless of course the portrait is so bad that the only response is to try to get the thing off the market. This could be a form of appeal as well.

From: Andree Lake — Jun 26, 2010

A work of art that can be talked about has a better chance of selling than one that doesn’t. It gives dealers something to do and relieves them from some of the guilt that arrises when they make such great profits for so little effort.

From: Gordie Hayduk — Jun 28, 2010

I was intrigued by your words “…perhaps the appearance of participation in a movement or a greater cause.” because there may just be a wonderful opportunity for some artists to have their work seen by many thousands, even millions. A retired justice — Thomas E Brennan — from Michigan Supreme Court, several Constitutional Scholars, and a cross-section of patriots from the many states, are working tirelessly to present a virtual Article V Convention for the purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution. Instead of half-baked laws and unkept promises by politicians, “We, The People…” want to exercise our sovereign right under Article V of the U.S. Constitution to begin straightening up this mess made by supposedly well-intentioned persons of all political stripes. Balance the budget, mandate fair taxation, establish a standard voting unit (…with paper trail), investigate/prosecute white collar criminals, set term limits for Congress and the Supreme Court, and many other issues — all as amendments to the Constitution, so the law will be obeyed. Do you think artists would be interested in expressing themselves with content/subject matter appropriate to the theme, including the constitution, congress, voting, patriotism, America, etc.?

From: Jim Larwill — Jun 28, 2010

Repulsion and Revelation Painting the landscape for some universal philanthropic need: Leaving the mark of inspired transcendence upon a massive canvas: Spewing the deep slick of altruistic rhetoric: Needing to tap into the system in order to pump it out: Joining a movement with a corporate identity in order to feed one’s own insecurities and GREED. Thanks for this morning’s laugh Bob. Seems to me BP is winning in that department these days. Glad so many painters are out there trying to compete in the capitalist market place with them. In China there are sweat shops filled with thousands of painters 12 hours a day copying the “Masters” over and over and over and over, while living on rice; peasants who were born on the land who have moved into dank industrial cities. Where do you think the next big world class shake everything up painter who has something real to say about the landscape of the future is coming from? Starving artist means starving; not, “Oh the castle I paint in isn’t big enough. Give me more! Give me more! Give me more!”

From: Kathy Mayerson — Jun 28, 2010

It was good to read your reply to my question from a few months ago. I was well know in Manitoba, had some exhibit both juried and galleries and then my life changed priorities until now! I am in another provence using my maiden name and now I know that I must get out there, join some or a group and just market my work in whatever creative way that I can!

From: Guido Severini — Jun 28, 2010

Choosing a specific cause or movement and working with it is a good idea. The various faiths require art to demonstrate and illustrate their myths and world views. This type of visualization is the basis of building converts and the activity is no where near finished as of yet.

From: Nicole Lavoie — Jun 28, 2010

Heart and soul, technique and all that stuff does not always translate into $ as you put it so well. I find myself out of the mainstream and don’t necessarily agree on what’s done around me but I keep working, show and sometimes sell but not at exorbitant prices. I paint because I like it. Thank you for being there.

From: P. W. Rouse — Jun 28, 2010

One cannot be too jaded and sarcastic. It is, after all, art. And art is one of the greatest and truest of man’s activities. Well worth participating in at any level. London, UK

From: Ron Wild — Jun 28, 2010

One day my submission to a traditional juried show was rejected because it was created digitally. The following week a sophisticated art collector invested $5000 to acquire it. On one hand the digital art was not considered to be genuine art, while someone else deemed it to be a seminal example of leading-edge 21st century art-making. By definition, cutting edge art will never enjoy wide-spread appeal. Nevertheless many art show organizers like to have my wild maps displayed there to spice up their traditional offerings. Overall I’m very grateful for getting a small taste of what high-provenance artists regularly enjoy. Even if I never show or sell another one again, I know that I will enjoy creating my next piece as much as my last, and the one before, and my first. The Yin / Yang cycle of simultaneous success and failure will continue to roll along, as it always has for artists everywhere.

From: Carole Chalmers — Jun 28, 2010

Steadily, with attention to personal passion and hard work, the provenance is built, brick by brick. Nothing unusual is needed but quality work, a level headed attitude and an unwavering belief in self-worth. It may take a lifetime. Bare baloney is less effective than one might think.

From: KAREN — Jun 29, 2010

I’m often asked if the “prints” my friends have purchased, (photos of original paintings signed by the artists), are investment pieces of art. I’m never sure how to answer this question. I thought “prints” were pulled from a plate of some sort, made by the artist. These photo-reproductions seem like glorified posters to me. Someone please clarify this for me once and for all so I know how to answer this question.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 29, 2010

How is it that survival of the artist him/herself ALONE- isn’t the most worthy cause? It is the artist having the vision and doing the work of manifesting the vision. Ain’t nobody else makin’ the stuff I’m a makin’…

From: Mischa Feltsman — Jun 29, 2010

At a recent juried show sponsored by a small town arts organization in NW Pennsylvania there were two sorts of obscene pricing. Several photographs– I suspect of being the work of students– were priced so low that they could have barely covered mounting costs and entrance fees. On the other hand, someone stacked empty quart paint cans (perhaps, 15 in number) on their sides– creating a pyramid of sorts, apparently held together with industrial adhesive, the bottoms of the cans being painted in common designer primary or secondary colors– and boasting a price almost 45 times that of the photographs. The effect of these two things on the show was, in my opinion jarring. (I’d certainly have never juried-in the stacks of cans, so I’m biased against these even before considering the outlandish pricing.) It was even more disconcerting to me when the cans turned up at the spring show in a larger nearby town.

From: Dennis Clark — Jun 29, 2010
From: William Panzer — Jun 30, 2010

Compulsive workers may need placement even more than green feedback. Destinations other than galleries might be considered. Sometimes deals can be cut for foyers of office buildings, apartments, hospitals, etc.

From: Lenore Conacher — Jun 30, 2010

Personally, I think “chronic poor taste” is the biggest pothole—and there’s little you can do about that! Bad painters usually think their work is pretty good, because it meets their standards. Watch out for older women with doilies on their furniture! (I’m an “older” woman but have always hated doilies!)

From: Sharon Marie Rosati — Jun 30, 2010

Some good thoughts for Kaden. One important part of this is something I realized just on a whim. Some of my art wasn’t selling so I raised the price thinking it was appealing to people (because of the relatively low cost) to the lower income section of society. People who are not really ready to part with the hard earned money. After I raised my asking price all the paintings sold rather quickly. It’s just a weird part of our set up and this guy explains it pretty well.

From: Rick Rotante — Jul 02, 2010

That which costs little is less valued.” (Miguel De Cervantes) This is the sticking point. In a nutshell, I’ve been exhibiting in and out of galleries and at both ends of the monitory spectrum. One true axiom is if its prices cheaply it seems cheap. The problem is what to price a work that makes the public thinks it’s worth the price. Price is relative. I’ve had people tell me the price I had on a work was ridiculous only to have it sell later in the day to someone else. I’ve had work priced very low only to go home without a sale at the end of the day. On other days I’ve inflated the prices only to see many sales. So, what’s the answer? As odd as it seems people do know what they like and will buy it if they want it bad enough. I say paint the best work you can and exhibit such. Be brutal in deciding what is good. Don’t put ever work you’ve ever created on display. Put only your best work always. Set your price and wait. If after a good period of time has passed without sales, reevaluate. Try going up not down. Your work will sell only if it has what seems the ‘right price’ Also price and exhibit the same relative sizes. If they see many of a certain size the same price they believe the cost is more accurate.


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