Trying to Make Sense of Art Prices

Many factors enter into the pricing of a work of art but in the final analysis it’s all about what someone is willing to pay! I’ve discussed pricing with artists who feel devalued by such a definition of the value of art, but all products and services are treated equally in the marketplace. Price is about demand; value is about perceived benefits.

I was surprised when I moved to Rockport (a seaside village with a vibrant art “colony”) to discover that some (maybe most) artists priced their work by square inch. Apparently, they had devised a formula that converted their time, cost of materials, and the overheads for marketing into one figure that could be applied to the size of the painting. If that figure was $5 per square inch, an 8″ x 10″ painting would be priced for $400, an 11″ x 14″ painting would sell for $700, and a large 20″ x 30″ painting would have a price tag of $3000. Those prices were basically what I was seeing in their galleries! Those artists with greater exhibition and commercial success might reason that their paintings were worth $10 or $15 per square inch, but one could see the relationship between the square inch constant and the various sizes of painting. It now seems reasonable to me but when I was first told that “my paintings are X dollars per square inch” it was a bit of a jolt. It didn’t seem to matter that the subject interest or the quality of one painting was judged the same as all the other paintings the artist sold. At least that was my impression of at least some galleries.

The fact that relatively few people are attracted to a painting doesn’t diminish its value to the person who finds in it some personal relevance, however. In an auction, the under-bidder didn’t value the intrinsic value to himself any less than the winner of the auction. The amount he was willing to spend was just one bid lower than his competitor. I once saw two dealers dual for ownership of a Persian prayer rug. The price reached an astronomical level between dealers from London and Glasgow. Long after all other bidders dropped out these two continued to raise the bid price until finally the London dealer who had travelled to Edinburgh to buy this specific rug shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and turned away from the auctioneer. The price had been established; not the value! The price paid was the value for only one of the bidders, and that value went far beyond the pleasure of owning a unique work of art. It was a consensus of dealers with whom I talked after the sale that “there was no way the winning bidder was going to let a London dealer take that rug to England!” The vendor must have done very well and a world record for the sale of a prayer rug might have been reached had the London dealer not blinked!

One cannot explain after examining cumulative auction results for a specific artist why one painting sold for $35 and another for $35,000. Those kind of differentials exist for many artists, though. Let me try to explain. When we choose to purchase a painting we normally evaluate its condition, look for a signature that is consistent with validated paintings by that artist, match the subject of the painting with the genre for which the artist is identified most closely, judge the size of the painting with respect to the subject depicted (i.e. is it large enough to provide enough detail) and the size of the space where we wish to hang it. When possible, we consider who the previous owners have been. Other factors like age of the painting, nationality of the artist, the medium used by the artist (oil, watercolor, pencil, pastels, charcoal), and whether it is a single rendering or one of multiple copies. (Sometimes artists painted the same subject numerous times and others used material such as wood blocks and metal plates to print numerous copies in black and white or in color – though that didn’t seem to be a problem for Monet.) All are classified as “original” art because they were created by the hand of an individual artist (and maybe his assistants) for limited distribution as opposed to photographic reproductions which can number in the thousands. Not to be overlooked is the venue where a painting was sold. An important painting seldom is sold in a provincial saleroom, but it does happen. Likewise, the contents of a house may be sold together with some good art that doesn’t attract the attention of art dealers. When I started collecting, that happened a lot. In today’s world, not so often but it can be seen in auction statistics.

For some people, a tattered piece of paper with a drawing by an imminent painter is worth a small fortune. For others, a spot of foxing, a crease in the paper, or a water stain renders the art undesirable. One collector may wish to buy only the work of female artists, while another chooses a single subject – animals, flowers, portraits, landscape, or seascape – the artist being relatively insignificant. The painter of one of my watercolors specialized in painting animals so my painting of flowers will not be of much interest to those who collect his work!

While all the factors mentioned are important considerations for determining price, they are subsidiary to quality. The maxim “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” speaks to the difficulty of identifying quality. There are essential elements in drawing and painting – and in all art – that to the trained eye must be present, but there are exceptions. The work of artists like Grandma Moses, for example. Primitive art is a specialized interest and doesn’t meet the constructive requirements of purists. Quality goes far beyond technical mastery, however!

It should be obvious with so many variables that art bearing the signature of a single painter could sell at auction for $35 or $35,000. The $35 painting, likely, was rejected by most bidders as a fake or a copy by another artist. Also, the condition may have been so poor as to render it unattractive and beyond restoration.

My collection was begun without the benefit of any formal study. If I liked it, I bought it – if I had the money! I discovered, though, that I had a “good eye” for quality, however that word is defined. In the final analysis, though, my success in buying was dependent on how many other “good eyes” were viewing the art that appealed to me. With my financial constraints, I focused my buying on what I’ve described as minor works by major artists and major works of minor artists. The best example of the former is a watercolor drawing by a Scottish artist whose paintings of Irish peasants brought great success to the artist in the early and mid-19th century. My watercolor is of a rowing boat in a backwater with no figures. It is clearly signed, inscribed, and dated 1851 in the hand of Erskine Nicol!

A watercolor of a rowboat in a backwater.

There can be no question about the attribution, quality, or condition. Nevertheless, it will sell for far less than an Irish cottage scene. In every way except the subject, this is a highly desirable painting. One that will not be sold in my lifetime but when it is sold the purchase price will be low, compared with Erskine Nicol’s paintings of Irish peasants. It should be noted, though, that this watercolor would be happily accepted by Sotheby’s for one of their feature art sales!

I have many examples of major work by minor artists – too numerous to choose a best example but I’ll illustrate with one of them. An Edinburgh artist working in the first half of the 20th century produced a large volume of watercolors, pencil, and pen and ink drawings in a variety of genres. I was fortunate to buy a few of them including his watercolor titled Windy Day on the Cornish Coast.

A Windy Day on the Cornish Coast - a watercolor.

William Miller is referenced in only one book, so far as I’m aware, and his career seems to have halted prematurely (around the time of WWII). His work has been eclipsed by William Miller, 1796-1882 and William Miller Frazer, 1864-1961. Had his career been sustained it is certainly possible he would have demanded the same respect as the other two William Millers! The failure of an artist to become commercially successful, whatever the reason, is not a measure of his artistic merit!

Finally, when considering the purchase of art, one must consider the cost of presentation and preservation – frame or matt, hanging, or storage in a box or drawer. And, not to be discounted is the cost of delivery from the point of purchase to the buyers home or business.

Let’s look at the latter consideration first. The cost of packing and shipping a painting represents a significant amount of the total acquisition cost. Delivered to one of the contiguous United States a small painting, framed or unframed, is likely to cost a minimum of $25 to pack and ship, a medium painting $50, and a large painting up to $200. My practice is not to ship anything that will add more than $200 to the price of the painting – my most expensive item being $9500. For these larger, more expensive items, I offer to sell for pick up only. Shipment to overseas destinations will be determined on an individual basis.

The presentation of a painting is vital to its full enjoyment and essential for its preservation. The art should be professionally matted and/or framed using conservation materials. That isn’t cheap! My watercolor of Mont St. Michel by Scottish painter Peter Alexander Hay was purchased for $380 but the matting and frame added another $400 to the total cost.

A framed watercolor of Mont St. Michel.

My price of $995 reflected all overhead expenses and a very small profit. After dropping the painting and putting a dent in the upper edge of the molding, I’ve reduced the price by $200 with the expectation I will lose money when this painting is sold. The quality of the painting and desirability of the subject justified the re-framing cost, however, and was a good investment. Gone is recovery of overheads and profit, but that’s part of the cost of doing business.

I suppose I’ve said enough about the pricing of paintings except to reiterate that a painting is worth what one is willing to pay – but we all need a guideline for what a painting should cost in the art market. When one sees a work of art they like and the price seems reasonable, they should probably buy it. It is not likely the painting can ever be bought for a lower price. My failures to buy a painting I was keen to have loom far greater in my memory than any regrets about spending too much!

By Lowe

Retired director of Thistle Fine Art.


  1. Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your
    articles? I mean, what you say is fundamental and all.
    Nevertheless think of if you added some great images or video clips to give your posts more, “pop”!
    Your content is excellent but with pics and clips, this site could definitely
    be one of the greatest in its niche. Excellent blog!

    1. I’ve included photographs in my Google blogs, but my website blog is limited to comments relating to the web content which is exclusively about the art for which there are hundreds of photographs. There doesn’t seem to be a need for anything further. Thanks for your observation, however. I do agree that a picture is worth more than a lot of words, and my writing is not sparse!

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