The major prerequisite for collecting art and design is an innate desire for the object. While historical, critical and even social context may enrich the story behind an object and explain its conceptual or physical production, it is the initial connection between viewer and object that sets tone and dialogue.
One collector may be drawn to nineteenth-century landscape etchings while another finds value in late twentieth-century color photography; the emotional connection a collector feels towards a work of art or an entire collection creates personal value.
Although personal value and preference may vary greatly, the methods by which one translates an appreciation and passion for art and design into dollars and cents remain the same. A variety of factors must be considered in determining an artwork’s monetary value.
Condition is one of the most important factors in assessing value. Has the object been maintained in the same condition since its creation? If there are changes in the condition, what are they? Have they affected the structure of the object? Have they affected the appearance of the object? Has the object been restored since its inception? If so, has the original integrity of the work been upheld?
Other key elements are the sales and acquisition history (the Provenance) of the object, as well as recent prices realized for similar works by the same artist. This information may be found by looking at public sales records; one efficient and complete tool for finding this information is artnet’s Price Database.
Artworks and design objects may be most effectively assessed by examining the market for similar items, sometimes referred to as “comparables.” Many variables affect the relevance of a comparable, most importantly its sale date. As with any market, the art market is fluid; comparable sales with dates over five years old may have little or no impact on an artwork’s current value. Recent sales indicate the most reliable information in determining the value of a work.
The most accurate evaluation of comparables comes from searching for works within the same medium (painting, sculpture, watercolors, drawing, collages, prints). For example, paintings tend to achieve higher prices than works on paper; the print market is more or less self-contained and specific. Therefore, a print sale, no matter when it occurred, has little relevance in determining the value of a painting, as opposed to the sale of a comparable painting by the same artist that took place during the past year.
The greater the volume of public sales records for an artist, the more important it is to find comparable sales of works within the same criteria. If an artist is new to the auction market and has only ten public sales (in various media), any price realized will be important in determining the value of the work. In the case of an artist whose work has appeared at auction often, and who has perhaps two hundred, or even two thousand sales records, finding an average price for similarly measured, “comparable” works is essential in understanding present value.
Subject matter, or the image depicted in a figurative work, may provide clues to trends within certain genres. For instance, still lifes from the Impressionist era, such as works depicting a bouquet of flowers or a bowl of fruit, have a slightly different market than a landscape painting or a commissioned portrait by the same artist. Thematic factors are combined with creation- or execution-date, followed by medium and size.
Pablo Picasso provides an excellent example of this point. Straddling between figurative and abstract, the works he created between approximately 1908 and 1914 are the product of his investigation into basic geometric elements of form, a method known as Cubism. As these Cubist works differ in style, date and subject matter from his 1940s and 1950s portraits, they also hold very different values.
Rarity is determined by the frequency with which a work by an artist appears on the market, or the number of a specific type of work that is currently available from a particular period in an artist’s career. When combined with demand, rarity becomes very important in appraisal. Visiting Picasso’s career can again be helpful in demonstrating this fact. A naturalistic or figurative Picasso painting from the turn-of-the-(twentieth)-century is extremely rare, compared to a similarly figurative work from the 1920s. Works from the earlier era, referred to as his “Blue Period” – due to the heavy usage of blues and darker, more dramatic hues – rarely come to market. In addition, they are in demand by museums and important collections. Because of these two combined factors, rarity and demand, when a Blue Period painting does appear for sale, its price is very high.
Conversely, works by an artist or from a specific era which appear often and abundantly in public auction sales may achieve lower prices. This is most common when the style or genre falls from fashion, causing less demand. A unique work, such as a painting or sculpture, that has appeared at auction more than once is considered “not fresh” to the market, and often attains much lower value than a work new to the market. A work that appears at auction and fails to sell is considered “Bought-In.” In most cases, when a work has been “Bought-In” recently or repeatedly, the value of that work is adversely affected.
Although an artwork’s value is subject to a wide range of variables, these variables are not always relevant. For example, guidelines for insurance or sales appraisals may be more specific than the introductory definitions described above. Or a collector might assign an artwork or design object a value based on a more emotional level. In any case, understanding the background of an object and its current market can serve the buyer in making an educated purchase.