Architectural Drawings as Art - Prices & Appraisals

Q: I own several of what look like the architect's original drawings for a well-known building in our town. Construction began in 1927 and was completed in 1929. They're not blueprints but are more like drawings and watercolors that show what the building would look like after completion from various perspectives. The best one shows the building as it would look on a street with people walking on the sidewalk and up the building's front stairs. Also pictured on the street are about twelve cars and trucks. The pictures are dated 1926 and are signed by the architect. Are they worth anything?

A: Your watercolors and drawings, also referred to as architectural renderings, are collectible and have value. Just how much value they have depends on their artistic merits as well as and on the work of archtecture they illustrate. Evaluate these and any other original artworks of an architectural nature, including blueprints, according to the following criteria in order to determine how significant they are and how much money they may be worth:

How well-known is the architect? As with any original work of art, the more famous the artist, or in this case the architect, the more valuable the art. Significant renderings by famous architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, or Le Corbusier can be worth tens of thousands of dollars and up. Research the architect who made your renderings to see how important he was, how many major buildings he designed, how many awards or distinctions he received, whether he's mentioned in any architecture books or magazine articles, whether his work has ever been exhibited at museums or historical societies, whether other architects were influenced by his work, and so on.

How interesting is the composition of the rendering? The more complex and detailed an architectural drawing is, the more valuable it tends to be. Those that illustrate buildings in city settings and show activities like people walking or driving motor vehicles tend to be more valuable than technical elevations and blueprints. Drawings in color are preferred over those in black and white, and those in pen and ink or watercolor are preferred over those in pencil. Since your drawings have both action and color, they have greater than average collectible value.

How famous is the subject matter of your renderings? The more important the building depicted in an architectural drawing, the greater the value that drawing tends to have. Drawings of important buildings are avidly sought after by architectural memorabilia collectors as well as by museums and historical societies. You can imagine how much the original designs for the Capitol Building in Washington, D. C. might sell for, for example, if they ever came onto the open market. Drawings submitted to major architectural competitions also have premium value, especially when the submitting architect won the competition, but also if the drawings received awards or mentions of any kind, even though they may not have won the grand prize.

Are the renderings original working plans that pre-date a building's construction? Architectural renderings have the most value when they are the original drawings made for the purposes of a building's construction. Conceptual drawings made for the person or persons responsible for a building's construction also have premium value, especially when they were used as the basis for the building. Decorative drawings made by the architect after a building is completed still have value, but not as much as original working or conceptual drawings. Drawings done by a third party not related to a building's original architect or construction may still have value, but those values depend on the quality of the drawings and the reputation of the artist or architect who made them, and not on the building or the architect.

Is the building no longer in existence? Renderings of buildings that are no longer in existence can have premium value, especially when they are among the only extant drawings of that building known. Researching to see whether any other drawings or renderings of that building exist in libraries or historical societies, for example, is definitely recommended. The less you find, the more your drawings are worth.

Was the building ever built? Comparatively speaking, drawings for buildings that were never built are worth less than ones for buildings that were. Reasons for this price differential usually have to do with beliefs that if a building was never built, there was some problem or drawback to the design, or perhaps that another design was chosen instead. Exceptions do exist however, such as when the drawings were done for important architectural exhibitions, if the styles of the buildings are highly conceptual and advanced for their times or if some notable controversy prevented the building from ever getting built.

Is the style of architecture shown in a rendering important or historically significant? The better a drawing illustrates a specific and significant style of architecture, the more it tends to be worth. The earlier the drawing dates from in terms of the evolution of that style, the more value it tends to have. For example, an Art Deco building exterior drawn by an architect in the early 1920s would have more value than one done in 1942 after that style had already peaked in popularity and was no longer considered to be cutting-edge or the height of fashion. In general, the more generic, ordinary, unidentifiable, or derivative a drawing is in terms of its style, the less it tends to be worth.

You can see that your drawings more than satisfy a number of the above criteria and that they certainly have value to local and regional collectors. How much significance the drawings have on a national or international level depends on how influential and well-known the architect was outside of your local area and how significant the building's design was in terms of the evolution of architectural style. In order to make an accurate determination of value, hiring a professional art appraiser with experience in appraising architectural drawings, renderings and related works of art would be highly recommended.

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