As an appraiser and art consultant, I receive a lot of questions about artwork value. Usually, the inquiries are from a client confirming an acquisition, or from an emerging artist seeking advice about pricing their own work. I also hear from insurance companies, tax attorneys, and individuals seeking to evaluate or sell an artwork. While insurance companies and tax attorneys are straightforward, the more interesting discussions are with individuals inquiring about evaluating artwork.
Buying artwork can be difficult. For the experienced and novice collector alike, it's about value, where the artwork represents a collector's aesthetic. It becomes a declarative emotional event when colored by acquisitive desire and perceived value, subjective elements defining personal aesthetic. Objectively, artwork is judged by technical merit (skill) and final price too. So it's no surprise that selling a treasured piece is difficult, especially when two more factors are added: condition and the artist's professional resume.
When an artist offers work for sale with a dealer or gallery, we correctly assume the work perfectly reflects the artist's intent. It matches the artist's description, and nothing more is needed to finish the work. If we like it, we accept its asking price, which becomes the work's perceived value. These are the subjective values that initiate discussions about intent and perception. Objectively, we understand good work is defined by a specific set of standards, and accept the final price as the price that brings it home.
Acquiring artwork is the acquisition of luxury. It won’t feed your children or protect you from the elements - but it nourishes the soul and, if you’re lucky, it will give you pleasure. It’s special, worthy of care, protection from theft and damage, and full enjoyment. Until it's time to sell.
When we sell a work of art, we evaluate it using a trifecta of factors: medium, making, and concept. We want to know what the medium is, how it’s used, and whether the artist successfully conveys a concept or intent. Medium (the materials the artwork is made of) is important because we need to consider the life of the artwork in terms of its conservation (and the costs associated with conservation). Knowing what an artwork is made of determines how to care for it under various conditions - the medium is the first informative element the artist gives us to keep his work pristine and protected from age and deterioration. Technical merit, or mastery of the medium, is the skill employed by the artist when making the work. It's the measure of the artist's creative and making process, and defines whether something is well made. It's the factor that brings us to the third step: considering the artist's intent, or underlying goal. The analysis of intent involves whether the artwork successfully conveys the artist's ideas.
And it’s all good, until we decide it’s time to find a new home for an artwork. We need to establish the artwork's value.
When determining resale value for works of art purchased from a dealer or gallery, the first measure will be condition, or how perfect is the work to the original state it was in at the time of purchase. This is when we assess it for damage and renewed value. Damage can take many forms, and when determining artwork values, it is defined by any event taking place after the artwork’s sale that changed the original nature of the artwork when it was offered for sale. The damage could be as small as a tear to a work on paper or canvas, faded colors, or in the case of sculpture, it could be a break or crack. For work based on multiple pieces, it could be a single missing piece in an otherwise perfect set. A damaged artwork is different because of integral changes to it, where it no longer matches the artist’s original description of the artwork. It isn’t perfect anymore, and its original value is diminished.
The second determinant for resale value is the artist himself. Has the artist maintained his practice, or was he a one hit wonder? Does his work continue to be sold in galleries and shown at exhibitions? Does his work demonstrate a trajectory of professional growth in terms of creative process? If the artist is retired, has his work retained value or grown in value? Can the dealer who sold the artwork find an opportunity to represent it for resale?
Ultimately, after considering an artwork’s medium, technique, intent, condition, and the artist’s practice, its resale value is the value given to it by its new owner. As a result, it’s important for artists who wish to retain value to consider how they sell their work, and for collectors to consider how they acquire artwork to maintain the value of their collection. And that’s a thought for another day.