The Unpredictable Pricing of Fine Art – What Artists Need to Know

by Georgia Lange

Over the past few months, I have attended many opening (and closing) receptions for art exhibitions at various galleries in the Santa Monica area. Many of the artists displaying their works were new to me. Some were well known to me, though I had never had the honor and privilege of gazing at their original pieces in person before. The most memorable of these artists was Dave McKean and the work he had on display at the Billy Shire Gallery last month. Then there were those artists whose works I had been watching closely for years, seeking out every opportunity to attend their exhibitions as the occasions arose. One of these occasions was the annual High-Fructose group exhibition at the Copro-Nason Gallery (currently on display through April 3, 2010). This was my third year attending the High-Fructose group show, and this year I noticed a great deal of little changes in the pricing of the work.

Pricing one’s artwork is a complicated matter. It is one of the primary reasons that I attend as many art openings as I do. The pricing of art is determined, in part, by the value of the artist; the prices rest on the renown of the artist and how well his or her work has sold in the past. The pricing is also determined by the location where the work is being shown. Each gallery has certain parameters for the pricing of the work that they are willing to display. These parameters are determined by the clientele and what they will realistically spend on art, and by all the other artists that the gallery represents. In short, the pricing of an artist’s work has something of a life cycle.

To explain, let’s build up a hypothetical scenario. An artist starts out as an unknown, and then a gallery decides that the artist is worth taking a chance on and is given a show. The work is priced at the smallest amount possible, but is not so insultingly low that neither the artist nor the gallery will make any money. Now let’s say that all the work sells; what happens next? As the work becomes more valuable, naturally the prices will increase. Now, let’s say that the artist’s work has grown so much in its value that the hypothetical gallery can no longer sell it; the work is now unaffordable for the gallery’s regular clients. Now our hypothetical artist is showing in and selling work to extremely high end galleries and museums. Next thing you know, the economy crashes and all patrons are wiped out. Now the work slowly decreases in its price, and thus where it is being exhibited, until it starts to sell again.

Personally, it has taken me years of attending exhibitions and closely observing who is exhibiting where and how much the work is selling for to pick up on this pattern of pricing. With the recession rippling its way through the creative industries over the past two years, my observations of the pricing of art have yielded some very interesting results. An example is the annual High-Fructose exhibition. When I attended last year’s exhibition, I was fascinated with the pricing of Josh Agle’s work (a.k.a. “Shag”). His work has been extremely marketable in the Los Angeles art scene for the past decade. Last year, he had a small painting in the High-Fructose group show that sold for $50,000. I remember that the company I was with were in shock; they couldn’t understand how the work that hung next to the Shag painting (which was massive, far more intricate and clearly more time consuming in its creation) could be cheaper and not sell by comparison to Shag’s sold piece, depicting in his flat-color and early-sixties cartoon style a party scene at the Playboy Mansion. I tried to explain to my companions why his work was so expensive and why it sold as opposed to the piece next to it, but their opinions of Shag’s work prevented them from listening to my arguments (beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that). Considering this memorable debate, I was certainly interested to see what Shag had to offer this year at the group show and what the price was going to be. I was surprised to see his original painting on display (which was roughly the same size as the piece he had shown the year before) priced at only $8,000 and it did not sell.

Another artist whose work was on display at the High-Fructose group show was the lovely Audrey Kawasaki. I went to Kawasaki’s solo exhibition at the Copro Nason Gallery two years ago, where every piece sold (I have never seen anything like it). At the time, her prices ranged from $300-$4,000. This year, I was pleased to see that her work not only sold at the group show, but that her prices had nearly doubled. Another artist whose prices have doubled with the work still selling out is Lori Early, whose painting sold at the High-Fructose show for $25,000 (the highest sale of the evening).

The recession has been hard on artists of all trades. Art is a luxury, and in an economic recession, luxuries are the first things that consumers forgo.  Taking this into consideration, it has been interesting to see how various fine artists have fared and how the market has shifted during tough times. I have observed an “out with the old, in with the new” mentality taking place, and it is reflected in the pricing of the art. I am amazed that fine art is selling at all, and even more so that some prices have increased (and are still selling!). It will be interesting to see where these artists wind up over the next few years as the economy slowly recovers.

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