Does an Artist's Death Affect Selling Prices?

Facts and Fictions

Q: I bought six paintings from a pretty well-known local artist over a twenty year period during his career. He's pretty old now and I'm starting to think about selling. When's the best time to do that? Should I wait until after he dies? Will I make more money that way?

A: That's a pretty mercenary question but unfortunately, people ask it all the time. The prevailing notion in many parts of artland is that art prices automatically go up when an artist dies, as if death trips some kind of magical instant inflation switch. Plenty of art collectors as well as artists believe in this posthumous profit scenario, but in truth, it's more of a myth than a reality perpetuated in large part by money-hungry dealers and galleries, particularly in the commercial realm, who'll say anything to make a quick buck off of naive buyers. In this particular artist's case, as in the overwhelming majority of cases out there, an artist's death has little if any impact on the trajectory of selling prices, dollar values, market desirability or "investment potential" (I hate that phrase) of the art.

You see, most artists age gracefully over time and gradually taper off in terms of production as they get older. In fact, a significant number of artists stop making art altogether, sometimes well in advance of their departures to that great art studio in the sky. Increases in the values of their art take place slowly, sensibly, deliberately and in an orderly manner over decades, including in the afterlife, and anyone who understands the art market and who seriously follows the lives and careers of artists understands that. Except in rare cases, their eventual passings come as absolutely no surprise to anyone and consequently, there's no sudden or significant price or market upheaval anywhere to be concerned about. Galleries continue selling, collectors continue buying, and prices continue doing whatever the were doing in the same orderly fashion as before the sad news.

Now there are isolated instances when death significantly impacts an artist's price structure, but a specific set of conditions must be in place for that to happen. First, the artist has to be relatively famous or well-known in certain circles, and their art has to be relatively expensive and in demand among collectors. Second-- and here's the biggie-- they have to die prematurely, suddenly or unexpectedly, thereby catching the marketplace totally by surprise. When that happens, a sort of panic or temporary insanity sets in.

Basically, dealers and collectors get caught off guard, everyone scrambles for the artist's art and prices spike upward. Those upward spikes, way more often than not, are based on profiteering, greed, panic, ignorance, impulse, emotion, and people trying to get over on each other with "better buy now or else" rationales. As for sanity and facts, they take a temporary back seat to the goldrush. In the months immediately following the deaths of Warhol and Basquiat, for example, their prices went through arbitrary inflationary phases before gradually settling back to sensibility and resuming their increase in a more understandable and controlled manner. Even Warhol's personal effects were bid into the ionosphere at that famed 1988 Sotheby's auction, epitomized by buyers paying many thousands of dollars each for vintage cookie jars that under normal circumstances might have sold for maybe $50 or $100 or so. These days, in fact, you can literally witness the "death effect" in real time among buyers and sellers on resale and auction websites like eBay when celebrities pass on or are heavily featured in the news for one reason or another. The profit vultures barf their memorabilia onto the market in hopes of making a quick buck while the body's still warm.

But wait; there's more. Just in case you're one of the multitudes who believe that art prices only go up, there are certain instances when an artist's prices can actually drop when they pass away. For example, estate executors or family members may mismanage an artist's estate by dumping all the art on the market at once and as a result, temporarily depress prices because supply becomes significantly greater than demand. Another reason for a price drop is when collectors patronize an artist based more on personality, public profile, flamboyance, social contacts, or sales skills than for the quality of their art. With the artist's number one promoter gone-- namely the artist-- their art prices fall flat. A case in point would be that of Pascal Cucaro, a colorful San Francisco artist whose prices topped out in the range of $50,000 while he was at his peak in the 1950s and 1960s, whereas today, auction prices for his paintings typically hover in the low hundreds of dollars, while only occasionally surpassing the $1000 mark.

As someone who regularly advises on artist estates, perhaps the most common reasons why artists' prices drop after death is that they had little or no track records of sales, few if any auction records, lack of gallery representation, infrequent or irregular gallery shows, sold mainly privately to people they knew, or stopped showing or selling or otherwise kept their art off the market for years or sometimes even decades. Regardless of what they might have sold their art for at the heights of their careers, their profiles and markets often have to be resurrected, and their art re-introduced to the marketplace in order for it to start selling for any significant dollar amounts at all. In a surprising number of cases, the art simply languishes if no one is willing to take on that task.

So getting back to you and your financial planning, your main concern with respect to the paintings you own might how the estate will be handled once the artist passes on, specifically whether the artist's descendents, inheritors or executors have plans for how the work will be shown, marketed or otherwise kept in the public eye. It's unlikely that plans are to liquidate large portions of his work within a reasonably short period of time after his death or otherwise compromise the estate, but if it'll make you sleep better at night, check with gallery owners or others who either represent or are close to the artist and get their take on matters. Or if you're feeling exceptionally rude, ask the artist himself. Enjoy your profits.


Need an art appraisal or consulting on price matters? Whether you're an artist, collector, have inherited art, or are thinking about buying or selling, I can help. You're welcome to call 415.931.7875 or drop me an email.


(art by Ricci Albenda)

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