Recently, Mark Winkelstein wrote, “A friend passed away and I have been trying to assist his family in the best means of selling some of his originals. He is the fairly significant Hungarian-Canadian painter Gyula (Julius) Marosán (1915-2003). Any suggestions would be appreciated.”
Thanks, Mark. This is a problem a lot of families are faced with and not everyone is aware of the options and pitfalls. There are two main objectives inheritors often have for their departed–further fame and further fortune. Maximizing cash flow may mean building posthumous fame. If a deceased artist has worked with commercial galleries or has had a substantial lifetime collectorship, these vested interests can be an aid.
In the case of Mr. Marosán, several galleries already are keeping his spirit alive. Seeking advice from galleries is the place to start. It’s common for dealers to make offers — often lowball — on “the works” or to cherry-pick and pay cash for a selection. This is actually not a bad way to go as the dealer will be motivated to control and build the prices of a finite supply. Here are a few things to think about:
Put aside personal and particular works that need to be kept in the family. With dealer consultation, eliminate substandard works and destroy them. If family members wish to be participants in potential profits, they will have to work out a legal agreement with the dealer. This can be expensive and destroy a dealer’s incentive.
Consider setting up a memorial website to honour and display the better works. Consider gifting a few choice pieces to museums. (In the Marosán situation, consider museums in both Hungary and Canada.) If no private dealer or public gallery connections can be made, consider slowly letting the works out through commercial auctions. Stop doing this if hammer prices become embarrassingly low. While commissions can be higher than in auction houses, also give consideration to leaving paintings on consignment with selected galleries. A thoughtful gesture is to make certain works available to charity fundraisers. No profit there, but you’ll make a genuine, life-affirming gesture that might have pleased the deceased.
PS: “Full lasting is the song, though he, the singer, passes.” (George Meredith)
Esoterica: It’s important for living artists to be constantly weeding. Destroying substandard work is not only good for the heirs, it’s good for the artist: nothing worse than mediocrity in sight. Burning, while illegal in some jurisdictions, is best. I do it quietly on cold, sentimental nights as a ceremony of sacrifice in the fireplace. Further, a quick note in the will, “Destroy all unsigned art,” saves everybody a lot of trouble and anguish. Remember, it’s always nicer to enjoy a few brilliant friends than to endure a crowd of dullards.
by Greg Freedman, New Westminster, BC, Canada
No comment on the posthumous building of an artist’s reputation would be complete without mentioning the efforts of Johanna van Gogh. Johanna was married to art dealer, Theo van Gogh, who died suddenly at the age of 34 leaving Johanna with a young son and nothing much more than a collection of hitherto unsellable paintings by Theo’s older brother, Vincent. It was Johanna who assiduously built Vincent’s fame by editing and publishing his correspondence with Theo (thereby establishing his reputation as an artist “who suffered for his sanity and tried to set us free”) and carefully managing the exhibition of Vincent’s paintings through strategic donations to various retrospective exhibitions.
Buried under it all
by Pamela Plotkin, Newport Beach, CA, USA
My Great Uncle John A. Dominique was one of the original plein-air artists. He settled in Ojai for the last fifty plus years of his life (he lived to be 100 years old). Before that he lived in Santa Barbara, Laguna, San Diego… He lived in Oregon and Washington states as well.
A few years ago someone found some of his paintings rolled up in an attic. A gallery claimed them and sold them. I was happy that his work was discovered and was being displayed. I have so much of his art work that it is overwhelming to know what to do with it. Most of his plein-air art has been sold or privately owned. His family has several pieces. But he left our family with a huge collection of abstracts. Many are large pieces.
I know the plein-air pieces can be donated to galleries or sold but it’s his abstracts that I do not know what to do with. There are hundreds and hundreds of them of them. It is overwhelming to go through. Our family has a foundation that gives away music and art scholarships to high school and college students. I have given many wet studies and sketches to appreciative students over the years. But still there are hundreds left. I sometimes feel buried under all of his art work. I feel responsible and find it very difficult to throw any of it out. Which ones to keep? But it would take at least a month or two to go through all the work so it continues to sit in storage.
I am also an artist and have started to discard works I do not enjoy or appreciate. Your recommendation for artists to cleaning out their work is an excellent one.
Be careful, one never knows
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
When art work comes to a death, we should all be very, very careful. Vermeer was a hobbyist painter in his lifetime, and with just 50 paintings he became important. Van Gogh died without selling a painting. He also became very important. Sometimes, I believe that my grandson will be very happy to own some of my work . I paint for my grandson. The fads will have died out, but a beautiful piece of art will still live and still be something.
I will never burn anything. I will learn from it, and maybe change it, but it will always teach me something. Personally, I like my own failures. Were my colors too ahead of the times? Would those colors be in fashion now? I will leave it to my son and grandson to burn anything that I make in my lifetime, and I still have my first sketch book from when I was 13 years old. I am just saying be careful with your stuff. One never knows…
by David Millard, Bothell, WA, USA
What does happen to most old art? It seems that compared to many of us, Mr. Marosan is an extraordinary guy who earned his works’ value, but what will happen to even his best art in the next 20 years? 50 years? I recall seeing so much art back in the ’60s & ’70s and I see little sign of it anywhere today. Has it all been hoarded by collectors? Are there that many collectors in the world? I’d be grateful if there were just a few more willing to buy even one piece of real art! It may be uncomfortable to think about, but is it likely that most of our art is not immortal? Is that so bad? Don’t tell me time will tell. We won’t be around to find out either way.
Several years back an older artist that I admired self-published a book of his work. I recently ran into the artist’s son clearing stuff out in a yard sale. He was giving away copies of his father’s book with every purchase. Although it was awesome to see a retrospective of his life’s work, his retrospect was being given away. So what will happen to his paintings? It made me think about my own art after I’m gone. In light of this, your comments about burning your lesser works does not seem so controversial. Better that I put them to rest now than someday a stranger bargains them off in a yard sale.
In the mean time I am re-thinking my ambitions to paint. I guess I need to get back to what I did in the third grade and paint for the joy of it, being satisfied that that is enough. Someday my work may end up in the Louvre or someone’s lavatory. Either way, when I’m put to rest I want to be at rest with my life’s work.
Keeping the art alive
by BJ Grant
I had an artist aunt, who passed away and left me her watercolors. She was fairly well known and belonged to the local watercolor guild and entered all the shows and won many blue ribbons. I am a Calligrapher, and I took some of her work and calligraphed on it. I entered them in shows with giving credit to her as the artist and me as the calligrapher. They were very well received.
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Suggestions for heirs
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Your letter contains a list of good suggestions for heirs. I copied this letter and sent it to my son and daughter, telling them to print and save it. It will give them a direction to follow when I give up this world and leave a lot of unsold work. Of course, ever the optimist, I am hoping that there won’t be any unsold art but one never knows. A suggestion I have already given them is to invite my artist friends to come into my studio and let them take all of the art materials and tools, as well as idea and reference files they may find useful.
by Doug Mays, Stoney Creek, ON, Canada
In respect to destroying substandard work (with an eco-friendly slant) — I found that cutting my substandard watercolours into 1″ x 7″ rectangles make excellent bookmarks. They’re always appreciated and I have an unlimited supply.
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Lots of artwork to deal with
by Eloise Weymouth, Terre Haute, IN, USA
I have not only had my father’s calligraphy but my mother-in-law’s oil paintings to deal with as well as now my own. Thank you for your sound advice. I’m ready to go light that fire. Maybe some will remain to a special few. Thanks for addressing a touchy situation.
Disposing of unwanted art
by Roberta Van Zandt Loflin, Baton Rouge,LA, USA
As I watercolor painter, I have found a less painful way to dispose of unwanted art. I cut up the offending works into small pieces to be glued to note cards (with my website printed on the back) This spring I have been spending Sunday afternoons in a park painting and sketching to live music. My cards may not be flying off the table but I do make “gasoline money” and have met many interesting people. It’s hard selling art right now but finding such ways to share is good for my bruised ego! (And all my experiments don’t go to waste.)
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Not the leftovers
by Jo VanderWoude, Sioux Falls, SD, USA
I want my children to have my best work not the leftovers when I die so each year for the past 5 years I have had them choose whatever painting they want from those I have on hand and my favorites that I have hanging in my home. In addition, I have painted two works each specifically for them. I’m in my 60’s now and hopefully have a lot of paint left in my brush but one never knows and it gives me great pleasure to see them enjoy these paintings. This year I probably won’t have them choose another painting as one can over do a good thing but will tell them they can request a painting at any time and it will be a priority for me.
The attached painting, Dream Catcher, is one I did specifically for my daughter (she does research in SIDS). The SIDS rate is one of the highest in the world here in S.D. on the Pine Ridge Reservation and this painting depicts a Native American mother’s love and the dreams she has for her child which are way too often cut short because of SIDS.
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Treasures with an uncertain future
by Linda Muttitt, Fort Langley, BC, Canada
My father was very artistic, finding time from his meteorologist’s work to do some beautiful pencil and charcoal work. He wasn’t famous with his art, or even well-known, but his work has great importance, deep expression, and touched many lives. It was a way for me to see an internal world within my Dad that helped me understand him better. After my mother’s death, favourite works of my father’s were given out within our family, and then there are the others, still precious, but with no home. They sit unseen in a box – treasures with an uncertain future. Deciding how to deal with these works-of-heart is an extremely difficult task. It feels disrespectful to throw them out. Feels wrong to put them in a garage sale. I am at a loss.
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oil painting, 28 x 22 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 one anonymous subscriber, who wrote, “I am not a painter, but why burn your culls? Why not paint over them? saving the cost of a canvas and the saving the environment from the toxic fumes of burning paints?”
And also Edna Hildebrandt of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “It is hard to think of someone passing and disposing of his /her art, while the heirs discuss division of the estate. Oftentimes it causes a rift in families in their attempt to claim a certain work which everyone seems to want. It might be appropriate to include art work in the artist’s will explaining what should be done with them when he is gone.”
Enjoy the past comments below for What to do with Grandpa’s art?…