A Realist’s Guide To Pricing Art


Don’t Let (American) Exceptionalism and Emotional Attachment Cloud Reality 

In “Trading Places” (1983), the character Louis (played by Dan Aykroyd) famously tries to sell his rare watch in a Philadelphia pawn shop, to which the deadpan response (Bo Diddley cameo), is “In Philadelphia, it’s worth 50 bucks“.  This is an excellent lesson on the everyday realities of pricing.   So often, an artists personal perceptions, as well as their feelings and emotions, get intertwined with the realities of location (i.e. market), as well as perceptions of what something is actually worth from both creator and seller standpoint.  Like Bo Diddley, an experienced seller can look at an object and almost immediately tell what it would be known to sell for, generally based on quality, and overall appeal.  They should also know whether they could sell it or not, without wasting anybody’s time.  Without further time wasted, today we provide our take on the widely debated topic of art pricing  (note: focused primarily on $2,500 and under).  This is also assuming that you want to sell something.  Fasten your seatbelt and remember: Take nothing personally. 

Getting Down To Brass Tacks

In basic economics, a person buys Object A, for Currency B.  This transaction on a foundational level (and more or less ideally) occurs between 1 Buyer, and 1 Seller, and nearly everything on earth (tangible or not), is some kind of Object with quantitative value.  Way up high in the stratosphere, you have the term “priceless”.  Back on earth however, extra help is often needed to push your product outside of your immediate sphere, and to broaden your market range and increase your value potential.  Besides, the money you might earn from 1 transaction will quickly evaporate (thanks Joe Biden) and in sales, tapping the same buyer over and over will usually wear out the faucet.  Or, maybe you just hate sales.  In any case, this is where brokers, dealers, distributors, hustlers, and resellers come into the picture and now you have Object A, Currency B, and Third-Party C.

Lesson 1: These people don’t work for free and if they own a brick and mortar shop, gallery, warehouse, etc., that’s not free either. 
Vanquish from your mind that the art business is a magical place where you can just show up and people do something for nothing because your artwork is inspiring in the ways of Jesus or Whitney Houston.  In the Gallery world, the money paid to a dealer is most often in the form of a commission (i.e., the money a salesperson earns to show, promote, and sell your stuff for you, usually at their own risk). Any commission should be clearly communicated in writing.   It’s not a conspiracy, it’s not “ripping you off”, it’s just the nature of business, plain and simple.  A salesperson can sense a good opportunity, and they lend their services, expertise, and “black book”.  

In loaning something to a salesperson to sell, don’t take the price you want, and then mark up their commission on top, because you have now overpriced the object and the salesperson has to work harder.  Sometimes you can adjust up your price slightly because commissions can vary from place to place, but you should always consult with the person who is doing the selling.  Remember, if you could sell it yourself, you would, and, on a similar note, stop telling a gallery you are pricing it high(er) because you want to do them the esteemed favor of making them more money.  If they want to make more money, they will just sell it for more and are only obligated to pay you only what you originally asked for.  

The second fallacy is “I sold or sell this at XYZ Gallery and it is my standard price“.  Ok, so if you are doing that, then why aren’t you still selling it there, and why are we having this conversation?

Lesson 2:  Sales is a 24/7 Artform.  Almost akin to the art itself, professional hustling is like a fine art.  Consider it like a sixth sense and a symphony of work that once fine tuned, is unstoppable.  The art gallery is merely the front for the art dealer.  Beyond what is out on the gallery floor, are a near-endless myriad of other artists, objects, mediums, shapes, sizes… all the the 1 millionth power.  An experienced art dealer can think of 1-6 pieces off the bat if a customer asks.  They can bend and stretch time, space, and half-truths.  If they don’t have it in the gallery, they can get it by picking up the phone and calling on artists they have worked with.  New shows and exhibits can be ways of exploring untested artists or bringing back tested ones for a repeat sale.  With so many objects to choose from, never take things personally when galleries don’t respond right away.  

Lesson 3:  Your Object Is Just An Object.  The sooner that you realize this, the easier it will be to price it and to let go.  Ditch the emotional baggage.  Just like Bo Diddley in Trading Places, you should be able to look at nearly any object and simply guesstimate its perceived value.  Secret:  It’s not rocket science.  An appraiser is generally not needed, because unless the artist is well known, needs verified, or the work contains gems, minerals, or rare artifacts, the object is more or less just another object, albeit, a unique one.  In an ideal world, the art gallery should be telling the artisthere’s what you can get for it” rather than the artist telling the world how much they want for it.  But hey, it’s a two way street and you have to meet somewhere in the middle.   

For the most part though, galleries dealing with mixed merchandise allow artists to pick their prices for a few reasons.  1.) It’s a mixed exhibit and there’s just not enough time and energy to haggle with every artist.  2.) If there is genuine interest in the work (aka a serious buyer), and the buyer wants a slightly better price, the gallery can they proceed to negotiate.  3.) Artist Ego.  Pricing is a litmus test to see where on the spectrum of ego-insanity a person is.   If your self-esteem is low and you underprice, a salesperson may or may not take the “low hanging fruit”.  They can also sell it for more, or, if they are confident, they will just buy it from you and keep the inventory.   If your self-esteem is way too high and you overprice (especially last minute changes), you simply risk wasting everybody’s time and depending on how high, you look like an insane narcissist.  Every once in a while a gallery likes a high-priced wildcard or two- if the work somehow matches the perceived value.

Lesson 4:  Sell The Object, and Not You.  Leave yourself out of the picture for a moment.  The object sells for what the object is worth.  Pretend literally, that you found the art in a dumpster and are taking it someplace to get it sold for cash.  Forget about all of your debt, and bills, and family stuff, and realize that in the transaction, you and your ego unfortunately doesn’t matter very much to ether the Buyer or the Seller.  The money you then receive is payment for an object.  The downside is that what this also means, is that the level of effort and work you put into it are worth… not a whole lot.  Skill however, is worth something to the right person (see lesson 5).  And yet all the while,  this is why art is so different.  They are unique objects usually created by the person wanting to sell it, so there is inevitably the personal connection with it.  Making objects to sell is different from selling the making of objects.   

Remember:  What the majority of Art Buyers want to know is a.) Will this look good in my house? b.) How badly do I really want it?  c.)  How much can I get it for?  

Lesson 5:  There’s A (Big) Difference.  Aside from spot checking an object and guesstimating it’s value, what happens when you put two or more objects of the same perceived value side by side?  This is akin to the 2 foot test as opposed to the 5 foot test.  This is where multiple similar objects must now battle it out to the death!   Long story short, consumers are not stupid.   There is a big difference between a $175 painting, a $750 painting, and a $1,400 painting.  The not-so-nice way of saying this:  at closer inspection, the work is riddled with flaws, bad lines, low quality materials, and shoddy workmanship.  In other words, it is amateur.    

If you want $1,000, make something that looks like a $1,000 work of art.  You have to actually earn it. 

Similarly, dealers and (most) consumers know the difference between good and bad Photographic Prints.  It doesn’t take a safe-cracker to discover that your photo was printed on an Ink Jet Printer.  We hate to say it, but any non-specialty photo printed on an at-home printer sized 19″ x 13″ and below, is worth $150 maximum (and that’s pushing it), unless your name carries some sort of collector presence.  Sales of Photography at the $200 and over range are 99% of the time printed by a lab professional, and yes, there is a big difference. 

Another big difference is that size does not matter.  Making art in larger sizes does not equate to it selling for more.

Lesson 6: Leave Your Emotions at Home.  

We’re not saying that emotions should be excluded when creating the work, and that great things can come of that.  At higher levels, the backstories behind the work will often come into play and can influence sales.   At much lower levels here’s an example:

Scenario: A gallery receives a proposal or application with 3 art pieces.  Each comes with a statement or story.  

Piece 1:   By all means, an excellent painting.  Story says something like “this was created in my darkest hour, when my spouse left me, and I spiraled out of control, losing my job, and my house.  I began drinking and experimenting with pills, was abducted by aliens, when I found out my mom died, but it turns out she wasn’t my mom, who was actually a hooker”…  etc. etc..   Price:  $3,000

Piece  2:  Nothing like the first one, and some earlier still-life graphite drawing.  No story.  Price:  $200

Piece 3:  (Meh.)   Price:  $150

What can we conclude here?  a.)  The artist is too emotionally attached to Piece 1 and thinks that emotionally, it is brilliant and they should receive more money.   b.)  They are deliberately overpricing Piece 1 because they can’t “let go” of it.   d.)  The work is highly inconsistent among all 3, so no matter how great Piece 1 is, there is no long term investment with working with this artist. e.)  They also seem like a crazy person to want to work with. 

So the moral of the story is:  deal with your shit and learn to let go. Work on your consistency and be professional.  If not, keep the piece for yourself if it was clearly so important to your life story.  

(American) Exceptionalism

If you can do sales all yourself, in addition to making your products, marketing, raising your kids, etc., and making a living off of art, then by all means, a congratulations is in order.  Let’s say that you can do it all by yourself?  This means that there is a high probability that you sell Online, in which case you are competing with virtually every artist on the planet, in addition to other “wall hangings” of every shape and size.  Furthermore, there are artists in other countries that can likely make art products faster, cheaper, and more competitively than you can, and sometimes at equal or higher quality.  This is where American Exceptionalism comes into the picture.  The advantage is, that domestically available art can be viewed in domestically located galleries, in a country where people have disposable incomeSeeing is still believing, especially when the price tags move higher.  Competing in the Online world also means that the larger marketplace is flooded with let’s face it- total crap.  In our previous post on galleries, it was said that the role of the gallery is to filter the crap, in order to limit (and price higher) artworks that may be worth a shot at a higher price point. Galleries are partly responsible for narrowing the goods within the market in order to drive up prices, which in turn, is a good thing for artists and sellers alike.    And hey, it’s not always about just the money.  A good gallerist should in some way like what they are doing and have some sense of initiative. 

Still, being an artist and your combined emotions and experiences in no way make you exceptional.  Exceptional really boils down to the quality, consistency, and frequency of work you produce, and how well it sells in the marketplace.  Simply because you made something does not entitle you an automatic $1,000.  Similarly, even if you are a member of some protected category (race, gender, sexual preference, etc.), does not automatically equate to anything on the price side.  Additionally, stop listening to your friends, parents, spouse, co-workers, who all tell you you could be selling something for $10,000.   Only art that is truly unique in a sense goes the distance, and there are very few objects that are truly unique to the point of high price and desirability.       

As we mentioned in a previous post (and sorry to burst anyone’s bubble- again), but the majority of Emerging Art is worth $1,000 and under.  Moreover, simply for a decent piece of casual art, somewhere between $300-$750.  Based on our experience, this is what most casual street sales occur at, as well as below.  Anything below $125 is considered “low hanging fruit”, meaning, it exists to not only sell for a quick buck, but to bring in people who may spend more on something else.  The average individual is not walking into a shop and spending more than $900 on a piece of art without thinking twice about it.  That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, but it is very rare.  This is why sellers develop and chase leads (i.e. doing the work of selling).  Consider that on a $500 painting, with a 30% commission, a Gallery makes $150.   So, you can imagine how many $500 paintings need to be sold to “get rich” (as so many people like to accuse galleries of doing), not withstanding paying their expenses first.  There is no “get rich quick” scheme associated with galleries, and if they are, (or an artist is), it is likely a rare exception, similar to a news article you might read about a crappy crayon drawing selling for $2.4 million. 

In Conclusion

Art is a round-the-clock, constant business with many players and variables.  Competition is everywhere, and the concept of “artist” is thrown around as a cheap moniker.  If making money from art is your goal, there are always angles to consider, and opportunities that are worth it, while some are not.  If creating makes you happy, be careful where you sacrifice the enjoyment for the pursuit of making money.   In our next discussion, we will talk about further variables, such as cost, and other musings on pricing.  




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