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  • Judging the value of an artwork - Image via squarespacecom - Work for works, search for print

How To Value an Artwork

September 8, 2017
Ana Bambic Kostov is an art historian with passion for contemporary art.

The question of value is among the most important issues an art collector faces, especially today as the highly fluctuating market took its toll on the way we value artwork. The general recommendation whenever appraising price range is to consult with an expert – however, there are several things a collector can do on his own to come closer to knowing the approximate cost rate of a particular piece. Before we get into that, a fair warning is in order – evaluating art is a complicated process heavily influenced by many market variables and trends. As with any other market, the art kind is very fluid – comparable sales with dates over five years old may have little to no impact on an artwork’s current value. It may be difficult for an inexperienced collector[1] to understand why a personally beloved piece is valued relatively low, but the appraisal is not to be taken in with emotions. Market value is one thing, while the personal and even cultural significance of an artwork does not always impact their market price. For all of the collectors and enthusiasts, the market numbers come first and they are often all that matters, so any upcoming collector must be aware of the key steps to determining a market value to any artwork if they plan to be successful in their new hobby[2].

Photo of a man examining a print artwork from up close as he hopes to search for more information on the work
Art Appraisal – Image via websimages.com

Authentication

First and foremost, the piece needs to be officially authenticated. The process of authentication varies depending on the period in which the piece in question was created. Contemporary art is perhaps the easiest to authenticate, especially if the artist is alive and working as they can easily confirm they were the ones who authored the artwork. However, if the piece was not made in recent times, artwork’s documentation must be verified and the physical traits of the work itself should be analyzed. The most challenging cases of authentication involve a laboratory, such as The Fine Arts Experts Institute from Switzerland. However, many cases do not go as far as to end up in a laboratory as a proper amount of documentation and a few looks through a magnifying glass should do the trick. So, why the authentication step is so important? Keep in mind that forgeries are not so uncommon, as was the case with Wolfgang Beltracchi and his incredible story. DO NOT buy a piece that did not go through the official process of authentication and, furthermore, be aware that not many will consider you to be a serious collector if you do not insist on the authentication before you value artwork. After the certificate of authenticity is in place, the actual valuation process can begin.

An image of print works made by Kerry James Marshall and put on display at the Met Breuer
Works by Kerry James Marshall on display at the Met Breuer – Image via nyt.com

The Name of the Artist

Big names equal big numbers, that’s how it’s always been. Works made by the likes of Jackson Pollock or Frida Kahlo will always have elite price tags. On the other side, an emerging artist cannot be valued exceptionally high, although new rising stars have been known to contradict this notion every now and then. Good examples are Oscar Murillo and David Ostrowski, artists whose prices have risen relatively quickly in the past few years, going from widely affordable to near exclusive. For many collectors, the main goal is to successfully identify the works of those artists whose value will eventually rise exponentially, but this is a strategy in which a collector must be prepared to miss a lot in order to get just one right. All in all, keeping the author’s name in mind does not determine the exact value of a piece, but it does provide you with a certain indicator of the price’s range.

A man taking a look at the condition of a painting in search for additional information with the use of nothing more but his eyes
Examining an art collection – Image via sothebysinstitute.com

The Condition of the Artwork

This often seems to present a particularly hard pill to swallow for less experienced collectors, so we’ll explain it with an example – having a Hirst piece doesn’t mean the artwork can be priced as other Damien Hirst’s work. The condition is the first thing that is assessed when you value artwork and it plays a major part in defining the final price of the work. Important factors are any changes to the state, possible restorations, effects of any modifications to the physical integrity of a piece or its visual quality. If any of these factors are present, the value of the artwork deteriorates at a frightening rate. Needless to say, pristine condition is highly desirable. So, the golden rule is that you should never, under any circumstances, try to make direct changes to the piece. Just leave it as is and do not risk compromising its value.

An up-close photo of Terahertz Spectroscopy, a popular technique when you want to value artwork
Terahertz Spectroscopy – Image via theconversation.com

Provenance and Status of an Artwork

Although it may not always directly influence the overall value, it’s always interesting to have a good story behind the piece you are trying to evaluate. Oftentimes, people are willing to pay more money knowing the piece belonged to a certain important someone or if the artwork was a part of some exciting event. Needless to say, provenance is more important in terms of authentication and lawfulness, but it can play a role of a price booster if the circumstances are right. Furthermore, if the earlier prices of an object can be tracked through provenance, these costs can be related to the current market and set additional markers on the price range.

Photo of a man and a wormen looking at a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts
A couple looks at a painting at the Detroit Institute of Arts – Image via trbimg.com

Subject of the Artwork

Although it may seem a bit odd at first, the subject the work tackles is an important element in art appraisal. Depending on the theme depicted, it is often possible to roughly determine a market, therefore narrowing the possible price range of a piece. One collector may be drawn to nineteenth-century landscape etchings while another finds value in late twentieth-century color photography. Not every piece is interesting for everyone regardless of the artist and the overall state of the piece. It should also be said that artifacts and rare objects are always more desirable than common things, so rarity is also a substantial factor in price determination procedure. Logically, the value often has a lot to do with the technique[3] in which the piece was made.

Photo of the Sotheby's auction taking place
The Scream being sold – Image via antiquesandartireland.com

Art Market Dictates Value and Prices

When it comes to contemporary art, market demand may be the most crucial aspect of art valuation. If the market goes crazy about an artist, his prices will take a leap, but constants do tend to fluctuate less. When it comes to the Western market, many power players influence the market, from the most famous dealers to the art superstars themselves. New collectors interested in how to value artwork ought to monitor prices in leading auction rooms and at art fairs, tracking similar trends. This will allow them to keep a finger on the pulse of the market and therefore do better in it. Keep in mind that the art market is dynamic and greatly arbitrary, but it is still regulated by more or less measurable determinants – extracting those important bits and turning them into useful information to value artwork is a trait of an experienced collector and an expert appraiser.

Photo of an appraiser taking a closer look at the artwork
Art Valuation – Image via chelsea-auction-house.co.uk

Consider an Appraiser Who Knows the Marketplace

Finally, researching the prices and keeping an eye on auctions and art fairs is surely helpful when you want to value artwork, but for all collectors, finding a trusted appraiser should be a definite must. Remember that self-appraising[4] can be fun but it can also lead you to critical situations as it can give drastically different results than a review by a skilled person. Finding a good appraiser might seem like something that pressures newby collectors, but it’s far from a challenging feat – most respected experts who value art already belong to various art market associations, so they are fairly easy to contact. If they are not a part of an established organization, it would be best to skip them and look elsewhere – the same goes for unassociated art dealers as they regularly bring many risks despite lower prices. The right appraiser will know exactly where and how to market the piece, and their fee will surely pay off in the end. Just keep in mind that various types of art, periods or artists have different specialists, so going to the adequate one is important.

References:

  1. Anonymous, 2016, How to Price Your Artwork: A Beginner’s Guide, The Art League [Aug 30, 2017]
  2. Anonymous, 2012, What Determines the Value of Art?, The Artists’ Fine Art Gallery [Aug 30, 2017]
  3. Anonymous, Jan 27, 2017, How to Find the Value of Artwork, Mallams 1788 [Aug 30, 2017]
  4. Woodward, L., May 9, 2017, A Simple Formula for Pricing Artwork, Artist Daily [Aug 30, 2017]

Featured images: Judging the value of an artwork – Image via squarespace.com; Artwork with price tags – Image via sonofpicasso.net; Archives of American Art: Arshile Gorky and Fiorello La Guardia at the opening of the Federal Art Gallery – Image via commons.wikimedia.org. All images used for illustrative purposes only.