From the outside looking in, it can sometimes appear that there’s no rhyme, reason or structure to pricing in the art world - at all. That’s because we’re largely exposed to the two absolute extremes of the spectrum, i.e. starving artists and multi-multi-million dollar sales. Someone buying a white-on-white canvas for $15 million while young artists create detailed portraits for $50 is crazy, right?
Well, yes - but perhaps not as crazy as you think.
You see there are many factors which go into pricing a piece of art. Sure, some of them are less tangible than others, but they’re all quite easy to follow once you observe them. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the factors which really determine the price of art.
When it comes down to it, most artists are just freelancers trying to make their way. Just like writers, designers and musicians, artists invest their own money into buying canvases, paints, brushes and all of the tools of the trade; perhaps they also rent a studio or required special equipment to manage a commission - all of these costs need to be met with a sale, or the artist will be running at a loss.
Time is Money
Most artists will assign a value to their time as an hourly rate. If a piece takes 10 hours to create, the bill should cover at least those ten hours’ worth of time. However, starting out, many artists will charge barely enough to cover the cost of materials involved. Why? Because, frankly, asking for money is seriously daunting.
Importantly, experienced artists will charge more for the same. Those with 20+ years experience might assign $100/hr to the value of their time, and that’s completely reasonable. Picasso was once asked, in the park, to create a portrait of a woman; he did so in just a few minutes, and when he quoted her 5,000 francs for the piece, she went into a rage.
When demanding that it was an absurd price for something which took “only minutes to create”, Picasso replied calmly: “No, madam, it took me a lifetime to create it.” A good artist’s time is worth a lot of money - and they are within their rights to demand it.
The Exhibitioner's Prestige
If an artist’s work appears in a gallery or exhibition and is well-received, the value of their work suddenly jumps up. The more they are displayed and honoured in this way, the more valuable they become - such is the power of prestige and praise.
In particular, if critics review your work positively, you will generate more interested and the public will eye your collection with greater value - again, recognition and status dictate prices as much as experience. An artist with 20 years’ experience will charge less for their work than a relative “newbie” with a huge fanbase and following, most likely. Always do your research on who the artist is and what they’ve achieved prior to analysing the price.
Third Party Costs
For artists who have their work sold through dealers, agents and galleries, customers will have to pay for the actual price of the artwork, but also the premium demanded by the middle-men. Since many creatives struggle to market themselves effectively, you’ll meet many artists through agents since they know where the market is.
This is where many debates over pricing take place. When an artist is particularly attached to a piece of work (perhaps they’re extremely proud of it, or it struck an emotional chord) they rate its worth as higher than other items in their collection. However, the buyer does not have this extraordinary emotional connection, and they’ll view the disparity in pricing as a sort of scam.
Many an artist has lost a commission from this curious emotional attachment, so it’s important when it comes to sales to always remain level-headed and (sort of) neutral.
Setting a price on something as intangible and, realistically, unnecessary as art, is very difficult. Music is art, but CDs all sell for around the same price. Same for books. There are many factors, but the prestige and success of the artist, as well as the length of time they’ve been working are usually to the two biggest ones in this industry.
Next time you’re given a high quote by a master artist, remember Picasso: you’re paying for a lifetime of experience and training - that should never come cheaply.