-By Arnie Fenner

What’s a piece of art worth? I’m not talking aesthetically, historically, emotionally, or philosophically, but in good ol’ dollars and cents, in filthy, dirty lucre? An artist (or dealer) can put any price they want on a work, but if there are no buyers is it really “worth” what they’re asking?

Realistically…nope—at least not to anyone other than the owner. “Priceless” can be a description with multiple meanings, I guess.

I was once talking to an art dealer about a piece I was interested in and, after the typical if-you-have-to-ask-you-can’t-afford-it smirky dance (which I find damned annoying and off-putting), he finally quoted a price. My reply was, “I can buy a really nice car for that.”

Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’ Alger” (inspired by a painting by Delacroix) set a record in May
when it sold at auction through Christie’s New York for $179.4 million. 

“Oh, Arnie,” the dealer said, “a car just takes you to work and back: this art takes you to another world! I’ve never looked at anything hanging on my walls and thought it was too expensive.”

My answer? “That’s only because you’ve never bought any of it for even a fraction of the amount you’re trying to sell it for.” Needless to say, the sale was not consummated.

As Android Jones said in a recent interview, the financial value of a work of art is what someone is actually willing to pay for it. Until money changes hands, everything else is a supposition or, perhaps, an aspiration.

The marketplace ultimately decides and it’s nearly impossible to predict how it reacts at any given time to what or to whom. Quality or an artist’s skill set are rarely as important as any number of other—often inexplicable—factors; great works can languish while buzzed-about crud can have buyers lined up waving their black Centurion Cards.

In 2009 Frank Frazetta sold the cover painting for Conan the Conqueror
(above left) for $1 million. After his death in 2010 his family sold “The Destroyer” (above right,
a reworked version of the cover to Conan the Buccaneer) for $1.5 million. Does that mean
that your painting of Conan is also worth a million smackers? Don’t be silly.

In recent years I’ve heard of some genre artists pulling in healthy four-and-five-figure sums for commissions from sf/fantasy collectors, amounts far in excess of what their best-known works sell for at auction or via the secondary market. The artists are happy to get it and the collectors are happy to pay it so good for everyone all the way around. Are the fees sustainable, a “new norm” for them? It’s doubtful. Popularity has a shelf-life, and that includes popularity for artists and their work. Barring some miracle it is highly unlikely the real marketplace, far less influenced by passion or nostalgia, will pay anywhere near the same prices when the works eventually are offered for sale (we’re all just curators of the art on our walls after all), but that’s the nature of the collecting beast. Styles and subject matter go in and out of favor. Different generations have different favorites, interests, and influences.

Whenever I talk art & money here on MC it almost inevitably will illicit a few grumpy responses, but the simple fact is that part of being a professional artist (as opposed to being a hopeful or a hobbyist) is making your art provide you with an income you can live on.  Fees for commercial work are generally determined by the type of project and the art budget the client has to work with; they’re pretty cut-and-dried. But when it comes to selling physical artworks, how does an artist set a price for an original?

The comic page for the first appearance of The Wolverine (above left) by Herb Trimpe and Jack Abel brought a hammer price at Heritage of $657,250. Trimpe & Abel probably split around $45 to draw the page: the collector who sold the piece had the real pay day, not the artists. (And if The Wolverine wasn’t in that last panel? The original would have maybe sold for a few hundred dollars at best.) The page from The Dark Knight Returns (above right) by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson was another (brief) record-holder for the price of a U.S. comics page when it sold for $448,125.

There are various ways to do it, a number of reasons, justifications, and formulas. Some make sense, others I’m not so sure about. But rather than try to explain them myself (or clumsily paraphrase the words of others), I’d like to steer artists to several informative articles at the ArtBusiness website. The first, “Quantifying Creativity,” opens directly:

Pricing your art is different from making art; it’s something you do with your art after it’s made, when it’s ready to leave your studio and get sold either by you personally or through a gallery, at an art fair, online, at open studios, through an agent or representative, wherever. Making art is about the individual personal creative process, experiences that come from within; pricing art for sale is about what’s happening on the outside, in the real world where things are bought and sold for money, and where market forces dictate in large part how much those things are worth.” 

The second, “Price Your Art Realistically,” is another no-nonsense piece:

In order to price your art realistically, you need a basic understanding of how the art business works and how collectors shop and buy. You also have to step back and objectively evaluate the significance and quality of your art in relation to the vast quantity and variety of art that’s on display and available for sale both online and at galleries. Being able to assess your art world accomplishments and get a sense of how you’re positioned in comparison to other artists is an essential part of this process. These can be difficult tasks for some artists and not necessarily pleasant, but they’re definitely necessary if you expect to make a go of it as an artist and start selling your art.”

Naturally nothing is carved in stone and there are exceptions and variables to everything; as I’ve often said, there are no absolutes in the art world. But there are some honest, common-sense suggestions in these articles and they’re good places to start.

This isn’t fantasy art, but I’m including this for Dan, since he’s a huge Norman Rockwell fan. “Willis Gillis in Convoy” was originally painted as a cover for The Saturday Evening Post but was never published. Rockwell eventually gifted it to the Gardner High School in Gardner, MA where it hung in the principal’s office for a number of years. It was eventually put in storage, forgotten about, rediscovered, and offered for sale in 2014 through Sotheby’s. Hammer price was $2,285,000.

Though I’ve shared some samples of some high-priced art sales in this post, they’re only rare blue-moon occurrences and should not be seen as some wacky yardstick for your own sales expectations. The vast majority of original artworks sell for under a hundred to (for some) several thousand dollars, depending on the artist, the subject, and the circumstances—when they sell at all. Regardless of the artist, regardless of popularity or fame, not every work has a buyer, not everything created sells.

Which is why it’s important to understand the marketplace, recognize what your position is in it, and price your work accordingly. Prices can always go up with success; having to reduce prices when no one bites can send a negative message to buyers and unintentionally make future sales even harder.