Art Gallery Gauvin

Australian Bush Legends

header photo

Pricing Artwork

How to Price an Artwork - The Vital Question - Or Is It?

It's been famously said that - 'An artist's reputation is only as big as his price tag.'

Much as we may deplore the crassness of that, we have to recognise the truth of it in the public perception. And so, artists all come to a point when they wonder how to increase that 'price tag.'How is it set?

Many years ago, I was asked to join a panel addressing this question. The audience was made up of collectors, dealers, and the general public. The panel comprised reputable critics, reviewers, gallery owners and other experts. I could only conclude I'd been chosen as the 'token' artist. The other panellists spoke at length and with much gravity. I set aside my notes when my turn came and decided to answer with  the simple truth:

'To what the traffic will bear!'

Utter silence.

Just as I was wondering if there was enough space under the table for me to crawl in and hide, someone up the back started clapping. A critic on the panel followed suit and most of the audience joined in. They knew they'd heard the truth. I knew it from my observations at various galleries that showed my work and that of many of my friends and colleagues. It wasn't until much later that the full impact of that truth hit me through personal experience and I'll tell you about that further down.
Endless stories have been written around the fact that only one of his paintings was sold during Vincent Van Gogh's lifetime. This fact is usually contrasted with another: That in 1987, Vincent's  Irises was sold at auction for a record $69.95 million. Then follow reports of the scandal caused when the buyer - Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond - defaulted on the purchase due to his bankruptcy and the controversial loan extended to him by the auctioneers Sothebys was revealed. Extending the debacle, in 1990, the painting was purchased by the Getty museum for an undisclosed price sometimes estimated at as low as $6 million, although this is highly unlikely to be the true figure. So, how can this happen? How can the value of an artwork fluctuate so wildly? And how is its price arrived at, anyway?

Fellow artists often ask me for an answer to that last question. Understandably, they're looking for a formula to follow. Some take what seems a rational approach: Cost of materials plus an hourly rate for time of production. I have to tell them that while that method works for pricing a manufactured widget, it is useless for pricing an artwork. Here's why.

Cost of materials will range from a few dollars to $100 at the most, even when the work is by Leonardo da Vinci. And which hourly rate will you think fair? The one set for a brain surgeon or the one for an unskilled labourer? After all, you are not unskilled and may well have put in as much study as the brain surgeon. But when you're starting out as a professional artist, how are you to know where you fit in?

If you're wise, and assuming your work is good enough to be accepted by a private gallery, that decision will be made for you - by the gallery director. S/he knows what clients are paying for comparable work and will price yours accordingly. But s/he can be wrong. You see, like anything else, an artwork is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. So the true arbiter of its value is the buyer.

This was demonstrated to me in quite a dramatic way some eighteen years ago. At that time, I still exhibited with various galleries and was content to accept their assessment on pricing. One day, a new salesman working at one of these galleries asked for a meeting with me. Having noted how quickly my work sold, he proposed 'floating' my prices.

'What does that mean?' I asked, having never heard the term.
'Well, what I'll do is hang one of your new pieces without any price posted. When a visitor shows interest, I'll say: 'What would you pay to own that painting?' And we'll see what happens.'

What happened was a real surprise to me. The canvas size which up until then had sold at around $600 was sold in the first week for $7,500. About a week later, a piece the same size sold for $12,500. And it just went on from there. I was actually shocked - wouldn't you have felt the same? Then I realised that in fact this is the most realistic way to find the proper price for an artwork. Simply ask the customer.

It's quite a different thing from winning a prize in an Art Competition. Since I won my first significant prize at age twelve, I had long been aware that winning did not mean my piece was 'the best,' anymore than the contestant who wins a beauty quest is the most 'beautiful.' t simply means that, in either case, this was what the judges were looking for on the day. But when collectors know they must live with a painting for some years (before it is worthwhile to re-sell) and are willing to back their choice with hard-earned cash, you get a result beyond dispute or qualification.

Please don't misunderstand me; I'm not suggesting the new chum try this on. That'd be asking for a raise before proving yourself on the job. But if you've put in the hard years of establishing your style, and have shown consistent sales in a reasonable time frame, now is the time to politely talk it over with a few of your gallery directors. If they are amenable to testing a float of your prices, it might well mean 'goodbye' to the day job.

My heart-felt advice to artists, borne out by the experience I've just shared with you and my observations of the careers of the many artists I've been honoured to represent in my own galleries, is this: Don't worry about the money.

I mean it. Pay your bills and feed your family with a day job, for as long as it takes. It may take forever, because relatively few ever become able to live on the income from their art alone. What does that matter? In the modern world, many excellent artists still rely on the day job. They can express their art freely, without pressure to make it pay a living wage. And here's a 'secret' Truth:

If you work at making yourself the best artist that you can be; if you focus on making your own art - not trying to 'cash in' on whatever is the latest fashion; if you never compromise your art by exhibiting something not up to your (current) standard just to get a sale -  something wonderful  will happen.

Not only will you like and respect the person you see in the mirror, but also 'it must follow, as the night the day,' that the money will come. Don't believe it? Please just try it anyway and see if you can prove me wrong.
© Dorothy Gauvin