Collectors Often Prefer Artists' Earlier Works

Q: I recently inherited a painting from my father. He used to do pro bono legal work for artists and this painting was given to him by one of the artists who he helped. The artist is pretty well-known now; he was just beginning to get known when he gave the painting to my father. Since he wasn't famous when he gave it to my father, does that mean it's worth less than the paintings he makes now?

A: It's actually worth more. Whether you're an artist or a collector, significant early works are often more valuable and tend to be more collectible than later ones, whether the artist is famous or not, especially if they're done in styles that the artist is best known for. This is true for several reasons. From a historical standpoint, early works tell us the most about how an artist's mature style evolved. From collectible and supply/demand art market standpoints, in the case of more famous artists, the majority of the earliest pieces are often in museums, private collections, or in the families of the artists themselves, and are no longer available for sale. On those infrequent occasions when a quality early example comes back onto the market, the competition to buy it can be fierce and the selling price high. Later works, on the other hand, tend to be more plentiful, easier for collectors to acquire, and not so pricey as the most desirable earlier ones.

From the creative perspective, earlier art also tends to be more energized, daring, inspired, passionate, meticulous, exploratory, experimental, and all kinds of other good stuff like that. When artists are younger or less experienced, they don't really know where they're going, where they'll end up, what the future holds, or how their art will ultimately be received. They take all kinds of chances as they search for what truly thrills them, never quite sure what the finished pieces will look like or how they'll resonate on personal levels. Conceiving, creating and producing new and different work is a genuine adventure, and it almost always shows in the art.

As artists progress in their careers, they usually become more settled, deliberate, systematic and predictable in their processes and styles of making art. They tend to gravitate more toward creating art with certain signature looks, do less experimentation, and come to understand exactly what and how much they have to produce in order to satisfy their buyers and collectors, and make enough money to survive in style. With the passage of time, the uncertainty, excitement, discovery and trial-and-error of producing new work is often taken out of the mix, and replaced by a mature disciplined sense of direction. At worst, making art can become more of a formulaic or assembly-line process than a creative one, where the artist settles into a system of producing the same basic work over and over again.

For you artists reading this, you might seriously consider "banking" some significant examples of your early work rather than letting it all go-- particularly ones that are influential, notable or otherwise meaningful in your evolution as an artist. Continue to set significant pieces aside throughout the course of your career, and with the passage of time, you'll become increasingly glad you did. If you're destined to become famous or even reasonably established or known, collecting your own work will likely turn out to be one of the best decisions (and investments) you ever made. Early on in an artist's career, it's often all about the latest, hottest, trendiest art you're producing, but you'll see as you get older that this paradigm changes dramatically over time. All you have to do is look at famous art by famous artists of the past and you'll begin to understand the hierarchy and significance of age from historical and art market perspectives as well.

As is the case with early works of art by individual artists, works of art that are identified or associated with the onsets of important art movements are also generally more collectible than later pieces done in those same styles. For example, an abstract expressionist painting dating from 1946 tends to be more valuable than one dating from 1959 (all else being equal, that is). At times, even works by minor artists can command substantial prices, not because of the artist's accomplishments necessarily, but rather because of the historical significance of the art.

Just like with individual artists, early examples of art that are emblematic of particular styles or movements are more sought after and collectible than later examples because they offer insight into how those styles or movements began and evolved. In addition, they tend to exemplify risk-taking and experimentation, and were often created in relatively hostile atmospheres and against prevailing styles and modes of their day. Early impressionist, modernist, abstract expressionist and conceptual works, for example, are highly prized by museums and collectors and often command exceptionally impressive prices when placed up for sale. This is less true with later examples because as a movement progresses, more and more artists come to adopt the style, the art becomes more plentiful, compositions become more repetitive and predictable, and so on. Early pieces are leaders; later ones are followers. It's that simple and no more complicated.

A notable exception to the "early is better" rule is when artists don't develop the mature styles that they become best known for until later in their careers. Once those mature styles emerge, however, the same exact rules apply once again. The earliest examples of those styles become the pieces most sought after by collectors.

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(art by Tom Bolles)

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