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  • Contemporary Art is Often Difficult to Resell

    Q: I bought a small sculpture by a contemporary artist about fifteen years ago when she was just starting out. I paid about $400 for it. Similar pieces now sell at galleries for $1500 to $2500. Can I sell mine for this much? Where would be the best place to sell it? I called up a couple of auction houses and they weren't interested in handling it. The galleries that sell her art weren't interested either.

    A: Unless contemporary artists are famous (or at least reasonably well-known), the demand for their art is high, and the supply is relatively limited, being able to resell earlier or older pieces at auction, galleries that represent them, or on secondary market websites (either fixed price or auction) can range anywhere from challenging to highly unlikely. In fact, the less well-known an artist is, the lower realistic secondary market asking prices have to be (as compared to gallery retail) in order to attract any interest whatsoever. Two main reasons are that the artists are still alive and producing and that the galleries representing them can get all the brand new latest art they need for no cash outlay directly from the artists. Even if her galleries were interested in your sculpture, keep in mind that they typically take forty to sixty percent commissions on sales-- likely the same amout they would take from you if you consigned it. That would leave you $1500 under optimum circumstances (assuming it's worth a solid $2500 and the gallery takes only a 40% commission).

    Other factors limit the resale prospects for contemporary art as well. For example, if an artist is young or just starting out, the fan base is typically small, so putting the art up for sale on the open market will likely receive little or no response no matter what you price it at. Additionally, collectors will tend to know the artist personally and purchase directly from them. The same generally holds true for artists who are reasonably known, but have comparatively small markets for their art and limited gallery representation, or who sell directly out of their studios. In spite of their profiles, any buying or selling tends to be "all in the family" so to speak, where everybody pretty much knows everybody, and third-party sellers tend to be looked on as outsiders. Basically, the smaller the market, the lower you have to price the art for resale, regardless of circumstances.

    To complicate matters, artists or galleries that represent them sometimes badmouth the earlier art, thereby making it more difficult to sell. For example, they might say that it's not current, the artist doesn't make it anymore, the artist doesn't like it, it's not what collectors want, and so on. The art may be perfectly fine, but that's not the point. The point is that it's seen to a certain extent as a threat-- as competing with whatever art the artists or their galleries currently have for sale.

    As if that's not enough, contemporary art collectors generally prefer the perks and advantages of buying from and interacting with the artists and/or their galleries directly rather than buying from total strangers on secondary markets. A major component of contemporary art collecting is social-- it's all about being part of the scene, getting to know people, having access to artists and other influential members of the art community, and so on. Plus, there's generally a reluctance to do business with private parties unless the buyers are experienced and certain they know exactly what they're getting for their money.

    About the only way that you can make your art attractive to collectors is to price it well below retail. Maybe offer it initially at $1500 or so as a sensible initial starting point. If you receive no interest or response, work your way down from there. As for where to sell, you can try secondary market websites, classified ads, online auctions, blogs or discussion groups or other online resources that mention or provide information about the artist, and so on. But if you really like the art, don't need the money and were just thinking of cashing in if you could get top retail, hold on to it. Assuming the artist continues to produce, sell and gain in popularity among collectors, early works like yours often end up becoming more valuable and sought after than later works.

    A more important point to keep in mind, though, is that you should be buying art because you love it, because it enriches your environment and you want it to be a part of your surroundings. No matter what you might hear about art as investment, consider it as an investment in your quality of life and NOTHING MORE. That way, no matter whether it goes up, down or sideways in value over time will have absolutely no impact on your appreciation and enjoyment of the work.

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