Gallery Price Guides and Estimates

I’ve tried every way, conceivable to me, to represent some justification for the pricing of art. It seems a hopeless expectation to put a price on any original object which can never be replicated. Nevertheless, I’ve felt the need to try and give the visitor to my gallery some insights into the process of pricing. The following paragraphs were written when I opened Main Street gallery in 2006.

Gallery Price Guide
Every painting is priced to reflect the current market value of works by the same artist – or similar work by another artist of the same accomplishment and period. Where included in our listings, a Gallery Price Guide is provided for artists whose work appears regularly in the marketplace to give prospective buyers a general appreciation of the price ranges associated with these artists.

When judging the value of a painting, one must consider many factors. Primary among considerations is the quality and condition of the painting. Popularity of the artist with collectors is the other important factor for pricing – basically, supply and demand. Other elements that affect the price of a painting include medium, subject, signature, inscriptions, size, framing, and provenance. The latter consideration is paramount when buying a painting or print of great value. Provenance may be partial or fragmentary, so there will be a some degree of uncertainty if there is no written documentation to show ownership from the date of creation through all owners of the painting. Such “ironclad” evidence of ownership is rare, except for the priciest of paintings. Prior sale by a reputable auction house may validate one’s own judgement, but does not of itself guarantee an accurate attribution.

The appeal of art is subjective. Price should be a secondary consideration! The only valid consideration in buying art should be that the object possesses those qualities that bring pleasure commensurate to cost. The cost will always be relative to the ability of a buyer to pay, so there is really no way to price art independent of market forces. Therefore, buy what you like, and what you can afford, leaving analysis to the “experts” and investment considerations to those who value money more than art.

Buying at Auction

It is possible to buy art at auction for prices below similar gallery items. Auctioneers will charge the buyer a “premium”, however, which is commonly 15% but can be as high as 25%. The consignor has been charged a fee for selling, plus charges for insurance and photography (if an image is included in the catalog). These costs are likely to be reflected in the “reserve” – the price below which the painting will not be sold. Dealers, on the other hand, acquire much of their inventory through private transactions, eliminating these “add on” expenses. The auction represents the market at its most fundamental, so one can expect most lots will attract more than one potential buyer. Expect the bidding to be active and someone else to value an object at least as much as you. NEVER bid before setting yourself an upper limit and ALWAYS stop when that limit is reached!

While you may be successful buying at auction for less, remember that the dealer has more knowledge and experience than most auction buyers. If you’ve seen a painting that will be auctioned, you might consider using a respected dealer for consultation and/or to place a bid on your behalf. The knowledge of auction psychology and strategy is just one of the many skills that a dealer has acquired over many years. The sum of these skills are employed in every acquisition he makes for his gallery. The painting you admire might cost you as much – or more – if you purchase it at auction as compared with buying from a gallery!

In this latest iteration of the gallery, when there is no longer a profit motive, a “price guide” doesn’t seem relevant. The primary purpose of this gallery is to provide visibilty for what now is a personal collection rather than an inventory. The last item of art was acquired in 2010 and there will be no further acquisitions. In the place of a “price guide” there are estimates of what someone might pay at for a purchase from a reputable art gallery. I continue to peruse the Internet for market indicators including the latest auction results. Auctioneers use estimates to encourage potential buyers to see the top estimate as a realistic price to hope for and the lower estimate to suggest a minimum starting price. Both of those expectations are reasonable but depending on the day and the nature of the auction neither are realistic. Still, they do provide a a guide for a buyer to establish her/his potential expenditure. So it is with my estimate. My estimates ARE NOT reserves – an amount below which an item will not sell. In an auction, reserves are not stated. My estimates ARE NOT unconditional – they may be adjusted up or down by changing market conditions. When an item is removed from Thistle Fine Art it has been sold – with the exception of those items which are explicitly listed as NFS – “not for sale” or “not for sale at this time”.

By Lowe

Retired director of Thistle Fine Art.

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