You ain't no picasso
January 16, 2007 8:14 PM   Subscribe

How is the price of art determined?

An acquaintance of mine, who is now a graduate student in a non-art related field, was formerly a painter, and during a certain period of his 20s, fairly prolific. He hasn't painted a thing for about 4 years.

He has all of his paintings listed for sale on a Web site, which I visited thinking I might perhaps buy one, as they are appealing to me, and I guess might be generally considered "good," though I don't know how that's measured.

I was shocked to learn, however, that they are for sale for thousands of dollars. I would have thought maybe $150, tops. Which got me wondering, how does that number get calculated? Is it the quality of the art judged by some set of universal rules? The value of the canvas or paint or materials used? The age or productivity or past mentors of the artist? Some intangible thing I'll never understand? Help!
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The same way as anything else: What the market will bear.
posted by dobbs at 8:37 PM on January 16, 2007

It is a universal rule. Things are worth the highest amount someone will pay for them.
posted by pompomtom at 8:37 PM on January 16, 2007

Oh, and $150, tops? Do you know how expensive paint is? Canvas? The time it takes to successfully put them together?
posted by dobbs at 8:38 PM on January 16, 2007

Certainly whatever the market will bear. Paint and canvas and what not are certainly quite expensive - so are art lessons and years of practice and time spent wooing gallery directors - but what you're paying for when you buy a painting include the fact that it is unique and original.

Since uniqueness by definition can't be replicated, there's no limit to how much a reasonable person might be willing to pay for it. This explains why works of art can be some of the most valuable single objects now in existence.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:42 PM on January 16, 2007

If you sell one painting for $2000, you'd almost starve rather than sell the others for $150.
posted by smackfu at 8:45 PM on January 16, 2007

When purchasing a painting you not only have to consider the amount of time it took the artist to paint the piece, but also the countless hours of work and practice it took them to become proficient enough to do it. I think $150 tops is pretty ridiculous, although people pay ridiculously hi amounts of money as well.

In the end you should buy art that you like, that makes you happy.
posted by meta87 at 8:47 PM on January 16, 2007

*high* amounts of money
posted by meta87 at 8:48 PM on January 16, 2007

>I was shocked to learn, however, that they are for sale for thousands of dollars.

You should only be shocked if someone buys them for thousands of dollars.

I've got, let me see, a spare copy of XSLT Programmer's Reference, second edition, on the desk in front of me. List price $34.99. Would you like to buy it for a thousand dollars? No?

Doesn't hurt to ask.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 8:51 PM on January 16, 2007

Best answer: If they were selling, he'd be painting more.
posted by nicwolff at 9:02 PM on January 16, 2007

Response by poster: OK, I get the "what the market will bear" part, but what I'm wondering is how the piece's price is reached in the first place. For instance, art that is for sale on the walls of bars, restaurants and coffee joints I frequent varies wildly in price, from a couple hundred to thousands. This variation does not seem to correspond to what I believe to be the actual skill involved or beauty of the painting.

It would seem like my acquaintance would actually be able to sell these 4 to 10-year-old paintings if they were more affordable. As it stands, they've been for sale for a long time.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:03 PM on January 16, 2007

"... As it stands, they've been for sale for a long time."
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 12:03 AM EST on January 17

It's not so common, but it's not unheard of either, for a painter to sell his work to a gallery owner wholesale. Your painter friend might have sold his works for hundreds of dollars, and the gallery is pricing them in the thousands to make its profit.
posted by paulsc at 9:09 PM on January 16, 2007

You're seeing the offered price.

You have probably never seen the paid price.

Often artists who don't wish to part with pieces will list them at a prohibitive price, say $5,000 (when a more reasonable price is maybe $300). If someone wants to pay that, then the artist doesn't seem so bad about losing it. If no one pays, the artist gets to keep it, which is what they want anyway.

Plus, the skill of an artist has nothing to do with price, and beauty is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

99% of art seen "for sale on the walls of bars, restaurants and coffee joints" is never sold, it's free marketing material for the bar, etc.
posted by Ookseer at 9:22 PM on January 16, 2007

Best answer: Keep in mind that most traditional galleries keep 50% of the selling price, which obviously drastically reduces what the artist gets. (And the artist is usually footing the bill for all the materials, and often the framing if it's the type of work that requires it.) Some artists have agents, who take another slice of the pie. So if a piece sells for $2000, it's possible the artist is only getting about $450 profit. If she spent 25 hours on the piece, that's $18 an hour -- better than slave wages, but often not enough to make a living if you're not selling lots of work.

Coffeeshops and online galleries usually take a smaller percentage; they also know that their customers usually won't pay as much as people deliberately visiting high-end galleries. (And for coffeeshops, it's a way to display art without having to pay for it, so any profit they get is gravy.) Artists who sell their work themselves can afford to set the prices lower, but some serious collectors (those who see art as investments) will question why you're not represented by anyone.

Still, you're right that prices can vary wildly among pieces that outwardly seem similar. Other factors include: how much the artist's work has sold for in the past; the artist's connections, education, and general reputation (if any) in the art world; the time & expense put into the work; the size and general quality of the work; and how much the gallery and/or artist realistically think they can get, given the gallery's location and clientele, and the artist's likelihood of becoming collectible in the future.

Many artists, especially those of us without MFAs, tend to be so thrilled when anybody buys our work that we undervalue it a bit. Others think everything they do is gold, and set such high prices for it that it never sells. The trick for the artist is to find the right balance. And if you're buying art because you like it -- not because you're treating it as an investment -- you should be able to find something you like in smaller galleries without going broke.
posted by lisa g at 9:28 PM on January 16, 2007

My art geek in residence says that even painting oils wet-on-wet can take a month. Wet-on-dry painting can take quite a bit longer. And that isn't getting into the preparation and studies. So the oil artist is often spending at least 50-100 hours minimum on a given work. Print-making is perhaps the great equalizer for art consumers, spreading the artist's labor over 100-5,000 odd copies.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:30 PM on January 16, 2007

Best answer: My father has made his living as an artist for about 40 years, and he and my mom also ran a gallery for about 15. His current prices probably average in the low to mid-four digits, though he's certainly sold work for $10,000 and more, and his smaller etchings go for around $500.

How does he come up with his prices? Well, part of it really is the price of doing business -- the sheer cost of canvas, stretcher bars, gesso, paint, and framing. These alone run hundreds of dollars, and can run into the thousands for very large paintings. Since he paints landcapes and cityscapes, he regularly travels around the country scouting locations or working on commission. Mileage, gas, hotels, food, and photography all add up.

Then there is the price of doing business within a gallery: rent (my parents' gallery was in Santa Fe, where commercial rents can go for more than $10,000 a month), utilities, publicity, employee wages, taxes, shipping, fees to accept credit cards (3%, I think, of every sale). For everything that my dad sold within his own gallery, of course, he (and my mom) kept 100% of the price, but for every painting he sells with his other galleries in other states, he receives 50%, with 50% commission going to his dealer.

Then there's the time in creating a painting. I was just talking to my dad, and he said he painted a little more than 50 paintings last year. So that's about a painting a week -- and he works 5-6 days a week (sometimes 7), 8-10 hours a day, day in and day out. So at a minimum, his paintings average 40 hours of labor to produce, but the real time spent is probably 50+ hours a week.

And finally, there's experience. My father got his MFA in the early '60s, and so has been at this, year in and year out, for more than four decades. What is that worth -- $20 an hour? $30? $50? $100? He put two kids through college, and still has a mortgage to pay, not to mention -- at 65 -- a full retirement he's still trying to save for (as I said, my folks have retired from the gallery, but he hasn't retired from painting).

All that considered, I think $5000 a painting is a bargain.
posted by scody at 10:01 PM on January 16, 2007

You're not paying for the hours or the materials, even though those are large, most times. Hence the non-sales of amateur art that took time and money. Now, is no one but me going to ask for a link to this page of pictures?? I'm asking. I understand you might not want to give it.
posted by Listener at 10:16 PM on January 16, 2007

I think you're looking at a question with no particularly good answer. There is an auction and gallery market, where value is determined by the market itself and prices depend on the relative scarcity of the work and the recognition and renown of the artist and the particular work in the whole academia/museum/gallery axis. Of course there is no fixed or agreed upon criteria for quality, though certain artists and works come to be pretty universally recognized by the establishment over time.

Self-determined pricing is basically inconsistent and irrational. Why not have a conversation with your friend about it? I mean, don't tell him you expected you'd be able to score one of his paintings for what a medium level clerical employee, say, would get for a days work. But I think it would be reasonably fair and tactful to say something to the effect that you looked at his paintings but were disappointed that they were out of your price range, but it made you wonder about how value is assigned to art. Of course if he were to ask what your price range is you would risk either insulting him or ending up getting sold a painting for 500 bucks.
posted by nanojath at 10:35 PM on January 16, 2007

I did find it interesting that some of the works, that a gallery friend offers for sale, have prices that are based on their size. By that I mean there is a predictable increase in price base on square footage. These are for works that are a minimum of a square meter and go upwards from there.
posted by qwip at 1:26 AM on January 17, 2007

Best answer: It's priced at what I am willing to part with it for, for one thing.

"Art" is a rather big word. Painting may be what you are asking about.

I have heard, and I don't think it's far off, that in the early years of a painter's career, it's a wierd mix of quality and luck, but once he/she is well known, it correlates with size. I don't know if it's true, but it sure sounds good!

How much a competent amateur can command probably has a big supply/demand component. There are certainly a lot of competent amateurs making a lot of stuff, competing for limited market dollars. At the same time, there are even more incompetent amateurs, pooling meaningless junk alongside the good stuff, further diluting the available dollars. It's like everyone is selling sand!

If you look at the pedigree of an artist, the novelty of her output, the quantity, and her position in the evolving stream of art history, then perhaps you can make sense of why Helen Frankethaler's PRINTS can sell for 5 or 6 digits which Jane Artist's sell for nothing or don't sell at all.

It is a puzzle that consumes a lot of artist's time. Oscar Wilde is quoted (I believe) as saying 'When bankers get together, they talk about art. When artists gather, they talk about money.'

That said, even though income may be critically important, a lot of art gets made without that as a consideration. I don't sing, dance or write for money so why should any of my other non-analytic functions (such as sculpture in my case) be any different?
posted by FauxScot at 4:40 AM on January 17, 2007

Best answer: Wow, FauxScott . . well placed!

You can buy "starving artist priced" oil paintings made in a sweatshop in Korea at an auction for $50. So those claiming the price of oil paintings has something to do with the cost of paint or the time it takes to paint or the cost of canvas are wrong. Nice canvas, good paint, and all the rest might add up to a few hundred bucks for a normal to large painting.

And the price of a painting is determined not only by what someone will pay for it, but by what someone ELSE already paid for one. Millions of people can paint pretty pictures. Only a few will be deemed "collectible" (usually, these days, through an incestuous cronyism system centered on the big MFA programs).

But it's important that there are a lot of would-be star painters out there trying. It's rather like pop music or television. If people didn't want to be inside so much, they wouldn't wait outside in the cold hoping to be noticed for so long. And then the magic would just -- poof -- disappear.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:31 AM on January 17, 2007

Whoops! ...posted last comment in wrong question. Jeez how embarrassing! How funny! Especially in the context of pricing art. Jeez.
posted by FauxScot at 5:32 AM on January 17, 2007

Response by poster: "Only a few will be deemed "collectible" (usually, these days, through an incestuous cronyism system centered on the big MFA programs)."

I suspected there was something like that involved. So I guess that's why the art for sale by our local homeless shelter, some of which is very good, is so cheap.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 5:52 AM on January 17, 2007

Two other points that I didn't see mentioned (and if they were I apologize for missing them):
  1. You are buying an item that was actually made by hand from scratch. That is pretty rare in our modern world where almost everything is made by a factory through mass automation. Maybe the cookies you bought at the church bake sale were also hand made, but then again maybe even then a premade cake mix was employed. So just realize that we're not used to dealing with artifacts that are unique and individualistic, and took a number of hours for a single being to craft. These things will cost more than we're used to.
  2. A lot of people without formal training in art are just like you, they have no idea what a piece "should" be worth, so setting the price high has the added effect of saying "this is high class art, not some print like you'd get at some shop at the mall." People that want to buy art with that waft of conspicuous consumption don't want to pay $150 for a painting, they want to pay $1500, because then it's somehow "real" (whatever that means) art, with credibility, substance, meaning, etc.

posted by Rhomboid at 6:58 AM on January 17, 2007

I mean, don't tell him you expected you'd be able to score one of his paintings for what a medium level clerical employee, say, would get for a days work.

precisely. this is the product of very specialized labor, you must remember. if you could make the painting yourself, i'm guessing you would. if the guy put, let's say, 20 hours on the painting, you're suggesting that he should let the painting go for mcdonald's wages? less than that when you factor material costs.

as a recent art school grad, i've of course let things go for small amounts of money, and i can attest to the fact that when we do this, it's out of low self-esteem, desparation, or as a favor to friends. except in the last case, it doesn't feel so great.
posted by wreckingball at 8:59 AM on January 17, 2007

Ookseer is right in that the price also reflects the artist's ambivalence about selling his or her work. Other creative types like authors or musicians can still pick up a copy of their work after it has been sold, but when an artist sells a painting, it's gone. Copies can be made of course, but that is time consuming, meticulous work and could possibly distract from creating new original work. Perhaps your friend doesn't want to sell his paintings so badly. They probably look great lining the walls of his apartment.
posted by SBMike at 9:32 AM on January 17, 2007

Response by poster: SBMike - sadly, they're stacked in storage in cardboard boxes! I'd love to liberate one, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen until I strike it rich.

Thank you all for great insights into the art world. I love looking at art in museums and galleries, but have never quite understood the formula for ascertaining value. Your comments have greatly improved my understanding of this process, which is way more complex than I had previously thought.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:01 AM on January 17, 2007

I was helping an artist friend deliver some paintings to a gallery and witnessed their discussion on pricing. They discussed pricing by the square inch for her paintings, how pricing should change over time, and how this would affect public perception of his worth as an artist. I recall the prices discussed being in the range of $1 - $2 per square inch.

You might metion to your friend how much you like his art and wish that you could afford to purchase one of his paintings. Maybe someday he will have a more pressing need to get rid of them, I've been to art clearance sales where the artist was moving out of the country.
posted by yohko at 11:03 AM on January 17, 2007

Best answer: I just sold a painting. I use unique items to paint on. I've sold over 200 paintings, but I don't have any reputation in the art world (don't do any networking).

1) Pocket Door 32" x 80" = $20
2) Gesso = $12
3) Paint = $60
4) Varnish = $6
5) 5 hrs to paint @ $60 per hour

Charged the person $398. It was picked up.
I figured the more famous I become, the hire my rate per hour will go.

Hope that helps.
posted by bleucube at 12:04 PM on January 17, 2007

I think another major factor is the sacrifice of giving up the physical work! As a composer (i.e., someone whose scores & recordings are perfectly/inifinitely reproducible), I've always been amazed at how visual artists can spend their lives letting go of the only 'real' copies of what they make.
posted by allterrainbrain at 12:48 AM on January 23, 2007

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