The Price of Things


Dear Artist,

There’s some odd dynamics in the pricing of created works. It’s useful for an artist to understand some of what’s going on. Art doesn’t necessarily follow the standards of supply and demand. You may have noticed that outrageous prices are sometimes placed on works of little merit — while works of merit go for a song. Keep in mind that a high price may be part of the mystique in selling difficult art. Add to this the excitement some dealers get from making high priced sales. Unlike a new Chevrolet, art is a perfect commodity for profiteering because no original piece is exactly like another. Value is in the eye of the beholder. Furthermore, a sale to one party at a certain price facilitates sale to another at a similar price. This phenomenon is sometimes called the “greater fool theory.”

Here’s a reliable system for the practical pricing of art: Have a sliding scale from small to large works. Keep your price list simple and stick to standard sizes. Do not vary the price on works just because they have more or less effort in them. If your work is selling readily in a given price range you have the opportunity to test the upper side. If it’s not selling a rise in price may be counter-productive — unless your work is “difficult.” The price of art can go up, but it ought not be seen to go down. Modest — perhaps 10% — increases per year are generally enough to give interest, timeliness and investment quality to your work. Large upward jumps can jump you onto skid row. Get the opinions of your agents. Keep integrity in and out of your studio and don’t vary too far from the standard. Stick to your paint and take a day off once a year to review your pricing.

Best regards,


PS: “If the work is poor, the public taste will soon do it justice. And the author, reaping neither glory nor fortune, will learn by hard experience how to correct his mistakes.” (Jacques-Louis David, 1748-1825)

Esoterica: A useful system for beginning artists is to enter the marketplace with ridiculously low prices. This method quickly makes friends, builds confidence and develops facility. There’s no shame in this. The time for higher prices is when they’re flying out the door. Later, while still collecting, people will just love to remind you how inexpensive you once were.

The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.


Pragmatic prices
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, Florida, USA


“Bedroom Windowsill”
by Eleanor Blair

I use a similar process to price my work. Fresh out of art school (over thirty years ago) art pricing seemed pretty random. My work then was (for economic reasons) small, I worked quickly, and (not having a ‘real’ job) I had to price the work to sell. Back in 1975, $25 per small oil painting seemed fair. My cost of living was low, and I was glad to be getting away with doing nothing but art. Then, before each show, I’d count the number of paintings and if I sold more than half of them, I knew I could safely raise the price slightly. After a few years, the price was up to $50 and I began to be able to afford to paint larger paintings, so the price went to $25 per square foot. I used the same rule (sell more than half at a show) to justify small increases in price. So my work isn’t priced at what I think it is worth (I think it’s worth a lot more!) but priced at what I know, for a fact, the market will bear.

This is a very pragmatic approach to pricing, but it has worked well for me. My prices range from $110 to $250 per square foot (depending on subject). I can afford to travel, and work in a beautiful studio and pay an assistant to help.

I have seen many wonderful artists have some success early in their career that goes to their head. Their prices shoot up, and their sales go down. Economic hardship drives them away from painting and into a dreary 9 to 5 job to pay the bills. Tragic.

A few of my peers have complained to me that my prices are too low, but they have the luxury of a university teaching position or a spouse with a job for dependable income and can afford to price based on ego rather than reality.


Ugly numbers
by MK

Do you have any thoughts on ugly numbers that a large percentage of the middle income population find unappealing? I swear $195 works better than either $175 or $200. I had a typo and the price listed on a piece was $660. People laughed because my work is amusing and they thought it was a joke — it was, inadvertently; but what’s wrong with $660?

(RG note) In my case I’m more concerned with ugly paintings than ugly numbers. However, I was in a Japanese restaurant lately where everything on the menu ended in 99. Except the tofu — that ended in ’95. There must be some time-honoured merchandising wisdom in this.


Dealer bashing?
by Sue Crerar, Florida, USA

Did I detect a bit of dealer bashing? And the artist doesn’t get a thrill out of selling a major work? Maybe it depends on whether their art represents their livelihood or they are happily free of such stress and dependent on others? It is so crass talking about money! Yuk.

(RG note) Riding in on a crest of bull, whether it’s the dealer or the artist, is, in my opinion, odious. It gives our passion and our profession a bad name. Prices need to be fair, appropriate and consistent. Unfortunately from time to time we have to talk about the subject — even though many of us find it yukky.


Portrait prices
by Lawrence Butigieg, Attard, Malta

Although I do other work, in the Maltese art scene I am considered a portrait painter. My prices are based on categories, ranging from a head and shoulders, half figure (hands included), to full figure. For the head and shoulders I usually use a canvas size 800mm by 600mm. For the full figure I usually use a 1500mm by 1000mm canvas. I also use various other sizes. In Malta the business of selling art is in its infancy. For the head and shoulders I charge around US $600, while for the full figure portrait I charge around US $1400. In the case of multiple portraits I add 75% of the price per extra person. I prefer working directly from the model. This would mean around ten 30-minute sittings for the full-length portrait. If the model cannot spare such time I make use of sketches and the camera. In both cases I charge the same prices.


When to raise prices?

I never know when to raise my prices. And when I do I’m always afraid my customer base will evaporate. (this statement paraphrased from several artists’ letters)

(RG note) Advancing prices on works of art is a bit like covering your ears, closing your eyes, and using your foot to detect land mines. Be careful. The half-show guide of Eleanor Blair (above) is useful. Sometimes an artist will notice particular sales acceptance of certain sizes or genres. You may see fit to raise those ones slightly above the standard raisings. But don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Another useful technique is to announce and publish that price increases will take place at a certain date in the not too distant future. For many artists this often has the side effect of creating a flurry of sales prior to the change — particularly if a show is held just before.


Foreign funds
by Chi Hung Wong

How do you feel about having different prices in different countries? I have been selling my work a bit in China but I am really thinking of offering it in other, richer countries. It would be good to have foreign funds coming in from where my work would have to sell for more.

(RG note) Many artists equalize their prices — particularly between the US, Canada, and the UK — that is they all work out to about the same cash flow to the artist. Right now it’s becoming popular for Continental artists to quote and sell in Euros. Furthermore, in many nations dealers will not take work unless it is above a certain price level. If you break into a country or countries at a higher price than you are getting at home — make sure you maintain those prices in an even-handed way — and stick with them in order to achieve credibility and consistency.


What merit?

You mention work of little merit — and work of merit. This is so subjective that in my mind it’s hardly worth mentioning. (Buzz)

(RG note) It has always interested me that some perfectly nice people with perfectly good brains can see value in perfectly awful stuff. Trouble is, they feel the same way about me and the things I like. Isn’t it wonderful? When asked for a definition of art Marshall McLuhan said, “Art is what you can get away with.”


Google useful
by Julie Rodriguez, San Pablo, CA, USA

I too strike a cord with some of the writers and if I feel compelled to write. Generally, I just enter their name on “google” and up pops their web site — if they have one. You indeed have developed a community with your letters. I devour the diverse perspectives. The honesty is refreshing. But I think it’s okay to include the e-mail addresses if the writer so indicates.


Responses lighten my touch
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada

I wouldn’t mind you publishing my e-mail address. Like Jennifer Seymour in the last clickback, sometimes I find what the writer is saying so fitting or it leaves me with a question, so that I would like to respond to him/her myself. I went to another artist’s website, and we communicated and had a debate over some ethical issues that was very good. Thanks for this venue. Once again, I’d like to say how much these letters and their responses lighten my touch, my thoughts, and fortify my ambitions to be the artist I am.


No siphoning please
by Bonnie Hamlin, Manitoba, Canada

Perhaps if a person wants to publish their email, sure. I would just hope it wouldn’t siphon off some of the energy presently in your published replies, or lessen the replies and feedback you presently receive. I’d be happy with whatever decision keeps you writing your letters.


Further foster forums
by Liz Wiltzen, Banff, AB, Canada

I think that people choosing to submit their emails with their letters is a great idea. It will further foster what your letter already gives, which is a much needed forum for artist’s to communicate the joys, challenges and wonder of this career choice with like-minded souls.

(RG note) Please add your email address after your name at the end of your letter if you wish. Thanks to all who wrote on this matter.


You may be interested to know that artists from 76 countries have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Carol Hama Chang of Edmonton, Alberta who writes, “The mind is a powerful but funny thing, isn’t it?”

And Elle Fagan of Connecticut, who says, “in flat times, do flat things.”

And Tania Bourne of Victoria, BC, who says she would like to “have a little chat with Warren Criswell.” We don’t think this has anything to do with Valentine’s Day.

And B Doherty of Wexford, Eire, who sends, among other things, a quote by his or her countryman Oscar Wilde: “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.”

You can see the results of our inquiry into the books that artists are currently finding valuable by going to Books on Artists’ Shelves



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