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How Does an Artist's Death Impact his Artworks' Market?

  • William Michael Harnett - Mortality and Immortality
February 16, 2018
Andreja Velimirović is a passionate content writer with a knack for art and old movies. Majoring in art history, he is an expert on avant-garde modern movements and medieval church fresco decorations. Feel free to contact him via this email: andreja.velimirovic@widewalls.ch

Although it may be considered a bit of a taboo, all art owners often ponder about how much their possessions will be worth when the artists who created them pass away. And it’s a fair question, to be honest, despite the fact many will treat it as a notorious topic. The art world, as cold-hearted as it is, coined a brutally appropriate term to define the effect artist’s passing has on his or her pieces – the death effect.

The death effect is treated as a constant and accepted part of the conventional art market. Even total laymen and those with absolutely no interest in the world of art will know to tell you that the artworks’ price will skyrocket when the artist who made them dies.

However, what if we told you that such a phenomenon is nothing more than a forged set of circumstances greedy art dealers and galleries stage in order to take your money, all based on the fact that an evaluation/reevaluation of the existing body of work is imminent following the artist’s death?

Roy Lichtenstein - In The Car, 1963
Roy Lichtenstein – In The Car, 1963, via timeout.com

Do Prices Really Skyrocket After the Artist Dies?

Unfortunately, the prevailing notion in the market remains that art prices do go up when an artist dies, implying that death is capable of flipping some kind of an “instant inflation” switch.[1] Yet, the truth of the matter is that this belief is perpetuated in large part by money-hungry dealers and galleries who’ll say anything to make a quick buck off of as many naive art buyers as they can find.

That’s right – at the end of the day, an artist’s death has little if any impact on the selling prices of his or her work.

Salvador Dali - Portrait Of Mrs Harrison Williams 1943
Salvador Dali – Portrait Of Mrs Harrison Williams 1943, via theartstack.com

What Determines Value Following an Artist’s Death?

When determining the value of art following an artist’s death, there are many factors capable of affecting it. The market’s overall condition needs to be taken into account, the artist’s age at the time of death, the way his estate will be taking care of the oeuvre and just how prolific they were. And even if you are able to factor all of these variables in, there’s still no guarantee you will be able to predict the posthumous value of an artist’ work.

In some cases, scarcity might spark higher prices, while some examples reveal that a shortage of artworks leads to a total lack of interest. It may even be fair to say that nothing really changes in terms of predicting value regardless of whether the artist is dead or alive – the sales and prices will always be dynamic and unforeseeable.

Chart via art-finance
Chart via art-finance.com

Deconstructing the Popular Belief

The art market constructed the myth about the automatic rise in prices for a recently deceased artist around the fact that, in many cases, the volume of sales or trading in a particular artist’s work following his or her death initially grows.

The other pilaster that holds the foundation of the posthumous prices myth are the rare cases where very successful artists died suddenly and unexpectedly. The statistics will also show that prices tend to escalate more quickly if the artist is younger at the time of death, as morbid as that may be.

You should be aware, though, that most artists age gracefully over time and gradually taper off in terms of production as they get older. Their work’s value does not tend to change over time and there’s absolutely no upheaval after an eventual passing. Galleries continue selling, collectors continue buying and prices continue doing whatever they were doing in the same orderly fashion as before the sad news came out – yet, many “experts” will encourage you to go and spend your hard earned money on these artworks, often speaking about “a well-placed art investment“.

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Radium 23, 1982–83
Jean-Michel Basquiat – Radium 23, 1982–83, via Wikimedia Commons

Rare Instances of the Real Death Effect

Don’t get us wrong, there are isolated cases when death significantly impacts an artist’s price structure. However, all of these examples had a specific set of conditions in place, factors that allowed such a situation to appear in the first place. None of them were an automated, guaranteed event.

Most of these cases required that the artist was at least relatively famous or well-known and that their art was already quite expensive and in demand among collectors. Finally, they all had to die prematurely and unexpectedly, thereby catching the marketplace totally by surprise, causing a temporary state of insanity within the art world. At that point, everyone scrambles for the artist’s art and prices spike upward.

Driven by profit, impulse, flipping desires, emotion and the fear of missing out, dealers and collectors start buying – and still, even in these cases, not everyone makes a profit. A good example is the famed 1987 Sotheby’s auction that saw buyers pay thousands of dollars for Andy Warhol‘s vintage cookie jars that, as soon as the hype went down, were realistically worth about $50 or $100.

Chart via art-finance
Chart via art-finance.com

Potential Counter Effect on the Prices

Another thing you won’t hear from that good ol’ dealer advising you to heavily invest in a recently deceased artist is that there are certain instances when an artist’s prices can actually drop when they pass away. This can occur, for example, if estate executors or family members mismanage an artist’s estate by dumping all the art on the market at the same time, making the supply significantly greater than the demand.

Other reasons for a price dip upon someone’s death can be found in inefficient representation, bad public profile, social contacts or even immoral art market manipulation[2]. Yet again, just like the case is with prices going up, the posthumous drop in value can also not be reliably predicted.

Andy Warhol - Mao (II.91), 1972
Andy Warhol – Mao (II.91), 1972, via portlandartmuseum.org

Staying Ahead of the Curve

We’re sorry to say it but, ultimately, there’s no way of predicting how the prices of certain artworks will behave after the artist who made them dies. If you do happen to own some artworks, being prepared for such a scenario definitely makes sense.

You can do this, for example, by finding out if the artist’s family or executors are planning on liquidating large portions of his work within a reasonably short period after his death. This is probably your best bet, but it’s also as far as you’ll get to reliably determining what will happen to an artist’s posthumous prices.

References:

  1. Grant, D., May 25, 2010, Is an Artist Only Appreciated After He Dies?, Huffington Post [Jan 31, 2018]
  2. Schrager, A., July 11, 2013, High-end art is one of the most manipulated markets in the world, Quartz [Jan 31, 2018]

Featured image: William Michael Harnett – Mortality and Immortality, via chinaoilpaintinggallery.com, 1876. All images used for illustrative purposes only.