The ones that got away


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “Do you ever hear from collectors asking if you’d like to buy back a painting? Do you ever buy back? There are paintings I wish I’d never sold — I feel they are my best and I should have kept them. If given the chance to buy them back, I would. What do you think?”


“Snow Scene 3” 2014
oil on linen 213.4 x 274.3 cm
by Alex Katz (b. 1927)

Thanks. The few rare reasons to buy back your own work, if your pockets are deep enough, include to destroy, to resell, or to luxuriously amass a personal, private, perfectly curated legacy. For artists long in the tooth, the more pressing reason has been to protect pricing when the secondary market starts to bulge. Alex Katz, who bought back 21 paintings from his collector Charles Saatchi when Saatchi announced he wanted to dump them en masse, cheerfully later re-sold a portion of the lot, piece-meal, for top dollar. “I wanted them back, and it was a good use of capital,” said Katz. Known for destroying thousands of early paintings while searching for his style and now able to personally uphold his work’s quality and value, Katz merely enjoyed the extravagance of participating in his own market.


“Impala” 1968
oil painting by Alex Katz

For the rest of us, studio buy-backs are an impractical financial and possibly creative, even spiritual, back-eddy. For an artist, paintings should flow in one direction — out into the world to live and die by their charm and street-smarts. If the now unwanted artwork was purchased from a gallery, the collector has the option to consign, auction or donate. If bought from the artist’s studio, the artist and collector may agree to a future trade. For collectors, while offering first right of refusal to the artist is often seen as a courtesy, it’s rarely constructive for her to buy back while she’s still actively engaged in the daily act of creation. While her oeuvre to date is a legacy of development, experience, craft-building, history, toil and connection, she must believe that her best work is unrealized and ahead.


“Nine A.M.” 1999
oil painting by Alex Katz



PS: “You have to be a little scared of what you’re doing. Otherwise, you just paint the same masterpiece a little worse.” (Alex Katz)

Esoterica: “Guaranteed for life” was a philosophy my dad practiced and passed along to me. This guarantee came in the form of extending a connection to the work by going beyond what’s expected. A small gesture of inviting work back into the studio for cleaning or repairs, regardless of age or condition, confirms your own self-belief and affords lifelong quality control. A quiet, rare trade-in can convert a mercurial collector into a career-spanning friend. If you’re lucky enough to hit the stratosphere and wrestle with a bulk-buying, bulk-dumping Saatchi-type, when you find yourself cornered into single-handedly upholding your own market, just follow the practical philosophy of Alex. Make good use of your fortune, keeping in mind that your best work is yet to come. If you don’t believe your best work is ahead of you, you’re probably finished.


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“I like to make an image that is so simple you can’t avoid it, and so complicated you can’t figure it out.” (Alex Katz)



  1. Excellent article :-)

    I haven’t had any collectors or other customers ask for a buy-back of my paintings.

    Would I do it?
    Perhaps, it depends on the circumstances and the reasons why the customer want to sell the painting.
    My prices are increasing continuously, and I wouldn’t buy a painting back for double to the price I sold it for.
    On the other hand, if a customer – perhaps moving to a smaller house – has a problem with fitting the painting in, I will help the customer either with a trade to smaller paintings or help to get the painting sold.

    BR Michael

    • Buy back, well without question. To respond no to this almost seems as if I’m putting a zero value marker on my work. Everyone has value in everything created.

  2. If you keep your “best,” then what are you selling to your customers? Do you really want substandard work out in the world for all to see and have them assume that it is the best you can do. I struggled with this issue early on and found that if I really couldn’t let one go, I would keep it until I painted something that I liked even more, but the rule is: you can only keep one at a time! I can’t put it any better than Sara: “…she must believe that her best work is unrealized and ahead.”

  3. I’ve had a bit of a different issue…. One of my best collectors is in his late 80s with Alzheimers. Before the disease had progressed very much, the couple told me that if I would like, they would will me back all of the 20 or so paintings they have purchased over the years. (They have a huge collection of many artists’ work and know that only a small percentage will be accepted by the museums they are donating to. ) At first I was saddened by this, but then realized that they had some of my best work and I would rather re-sell those paintings myself instead of unknown people profitting from them…

  4. Carole Wayne on

    Some of us Collectors need to downsize at a certain stage of life. I have always offered work back to an artist if I know how to find him or her, otherwise I try to fine a good home through charitable donation- to an institution, museum, etc.

  5. I’ve never been a fan of Alex Katz’s work, but I saw “impala” for years at the Albright-Knox in Buffalo. It was fantastic, like seeing an old friend.

  6. I keep referring to my eight and half decades of painting. That makes me one that Sara calls long-in-the-tooth. She’s right. From that point of view several things come to mind. There are indeed some paintings, often prize winners, that I have sold that I would like to have back to keep in a personal family collection. That’s a family of adult “kids”, our own and grandchildren and some teenaged great grandkids who will be glad we kept a good collection. They say so with gratifying exuberance. Secondly, If you have been in this game long enough with success, and have not blown the money from every sale on toys (or worse) but put some away, then frequent sales become less important. And then finally, if you are long-in-tooth enough you will lose some energy and it takes energy to do some of the large and complicated work you did in the past. I wish you all a long and productive art life. What could be better?

  7. I have had a few circumstances where I was informed that the collector had died and the family couldn’t keep all of the work so would I buy a piece back and I did

    Sadly the fine work by a colleague who had his work show up in a yard sale for a very low price made me sad that the family didn’t ask me or others to acquire them or make a gift to a regional museum or college collection

    I have kept a good sample of my life’s work and have made several gifts to museums and college collections to be sure they have a good home into the future

  8. This was a smart column. A friend of mine was distressed because she found a piece of hers was in an art auction, donated by one of her collectors. I said, “What? Are you nuts? You have made it all the way to the secondary market!”

  9. All artists should check with eBay for works being sold by them in case one of their early works is available. I know a prominent artist who does this and has set up an alert if/when his works are offered on eBay.

  10. This was amusing. Years ago I showed a painting, not for sale, and was asked how much it was. I said it was not for sale. He persisted. I said “a painting that size and similar would go for $xxx. But the painting you see is not for sale”. Later he hunted me down, handed me cash for the painting not for sale. I sold it. I was told how it was the centerpoint of the decoration of a certain room. Years later he found me again and wanted to know if I wanted to buy it back since the wife was redecorating. I had moved on, my paintings were better at that time and I was not interested in buying back, even for that low price. However, I always loved “Chocolate Ruby Ketchup” by George James. I told him. He agreed and said he was sorry he ever sold that painting. I would love to own that. Mine? I was no longer interested in having it back even though I was enthralled with it at the time.

  11. It happened to me.

    I was offered to buy a bunch of my early nude drawings I made from life 15 — 20 years. The excuse by the guy — who had bought tha folder from a dealer — was his wife didn’t appreciate the sexy thing! I was ready to buy back to destroy like Alex Katz, or at least hide them, for they where not great art works. I simple could not afford the money that buyer (would not call him a collector) wanted. Maybe one day.

    There is another painting I’ll love to buy back . If I haden’t lost track of the buyer. I’ve been regretted sold that piece I loved, and for so cheap, long time ago.

    Thank you all for the insights!

  12. Kind of unfortunately I must sell anything I can. However, I did keep one painting that I could have sold twenty times over. Although my later work is better, the old one is still my muse.

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I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.


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