A few years back I came across a work of art that I liked. It was of a chair that was so well executed, it seemed to have a life of its own. I contacted the artist and asked her the price. She quoted me an amount I thought was too high. Her reply: “I showed this work at a gallery and they told me not to undervalue my work.” I was familiar with the gallery. At the time, I had reviewed one of their better known sculptors for Parachute Magazine. It was a co-op, run by artists for artists and though it provided exhibition space, it did not offer representation. I understood their advice to the artist, but I also understood that her price was too high. She called me back a few weeks later to tell me she was willing to cut her price by half. I didn’t buy the work, not because I thought it was still too high but because I had been given too much time to reflect. I was no longer basing my decision on emotion, but on cold calculation. In retrospect, I made the right decision.
Buying art as an investment, especially from an emerging artist, is never a guaranteed investment (in this world what is?). And yet, conversely, assuming the artist has potential, buying the work of an emerging artist who is still relatively unknown is probably one of the best investment decisions one can make. Here are a few things to consider that might help you determine how much is not too much to pay for a young artist.
Ask to see more than the one work you are considering. Only in this way will you be able to judge whether the body of work is consistent in quality. Yann Martel (of Life of Pi fame) once said in a CBC interview that he had one good book in him to write. While he was being facetious, his point is well taken. Think of all the one-hit wonders of popular music … if you are approaching art with the idea of building a worthwhile collection, you don’t want your piece to be the only good piece of an artist’s work.
Visit as many reputable galleries as possible. Only in this way, will you be able to determine what to expect to pay for an emerging artist. Most galleries (prices usually vary from city to city and country to country) have a fairly equitable system when it comes to emerging artists. Variables will include things such as whether the artist has had previous shows, how successful these shows were, who and what collectors are showing interest in the artist, and whether the artist has been picked up by any other gallery in another city or country.
If you are buying directly from an artist, consider at what point the artist is in her/his career. Are they finishing a BFA or an MFA? If they are working, who else has bought their work? Have they been in any shows? Also, how do their prices relate to those of the emerging artists who are represented by galleries? They should be significantly lower than artists in an art gallery since it’s no secret that gallery prices include the gallery’s commission which is then re-invested in promoting the artist. More on this later.
Last, but not least, do not assume that buying directly from an artist will be cheaper than buying from an art gallery. I have spoken to many gallery owners since my experience with the young artist and many have confirmed similar experiences of young artists expecting too much. Possible explanations? Young artists believe their original work of art to be of the same quality as anything they’ve seen in a gallery. While this may be true, it does not justify their price hike – a buyer buying from an art gallery recognizes they are paying a commission and the work has been “vetted” by a professional. Young artists are also sometimes overly attached to their work, they believe that whoever expresses interest will be as attached to their work as they are. Young artists sometimes may not have that much inventory and so they like to try to hold onto their work so they can show it to interested collectors and galleries. Whatever the reason, one thing is clear – overpricing, be it by the gallery or the artist, hurts the art. Art needs to be sold and it needs to justify its prices by proving itself to be consistently marketable.