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  • Use Independent No-Conflict Appraisers
    for Valuing Art

    Q: I own a painting that my children don't want, so I've decided to sell it. I bought it about 20 years ago. I wrote to one of the galleries that represents the artist and requested an appraisal. According to them, it's worth a lot more than I paid for it. I know I probably can't sell it for that much, but can you tell me how and where I can get a good price? The gallery says that they don't get involved with resales. I've enclosed a copy of their appraisal.

    A: Don't expect to sell your art for anywhere near what you and the gallery are calling its appraised value. First of all, this so-called appraisal is from a gallery that represents the artist, not an independent appraiser or similar professional with no conflict of interest, so it's not really an appraisal at all, but rather a statement of the retail price they'd sell it for if they had it hanging on their walls today... except they're not interested in hanging it on their walls today. So let's try to figure out what's really going on.

    The gallery's best interest is to "appraise" art and artists that they represent as high as possible because big dollar amounts make them look good. While these numbers work nicely for the gallery, they do absolutely nothing for you except maybe give you delusionary ideas about the liquid value of your art. This gallery is one of a handful of places on the planet where the artist's work can sell for the kind of money they're telling you it's worth. Now you would think that if the art was indeed this valuable, they might have an interest in either buying it back or reselling it on consignment, but they don't. That should tell you something.

    What we're dealing with here is an artist's market that's similar to a monopoly situation in that a handful of galleries exclusively represent and control his prices. They decide what the art sells for at retail and "appraise" it at whatever the current retail prices that they've set happen to be (but remember-- this is not technically appraising). The artist's market is created, constructed, maintained and manipulated entirely in-house. In your particular situation, the galleries in control apparently don't concern themselves with resales like yours that might take place on the outside. They're in business to sell art and appear to have little or no interest in what happens to that art after they sell it.

    This state of affairs relates directly your attempts to sell your art. The fact that this gallery and likely the other galleries as well do not handle resales typically means they have all the art they need, which also means that the market for the artist is not strong enough to warrant their buying art back or even seeking consignments from the outside. In other words, supply is greater than demand and outside of the galleries, you're dealing with a buyer's market.

    The little bit of good news is that secondary market resales for this artist do take place, but at prices well below what the galleries retail the art for. A non-conflicted outside appraiser would have advised you of this. Expect to sell your art for only about 20-30% of the value it's been "appraised" at by the gallery.

    For you art buyers who are concerned about what kind of value you're getting for your money, find out about resale options and secondary market selling prices before you buy rather than after. Does a healthy secondary market exist outside of retail galleries that represent an artist and, if so, where is it and how much does art like whatever you're thinking about buying tend to resell for? Does similar art sell at auctions (either online or bricks and mortar), on secondary market websites or at multiple galleries in addition to those that represent the artist? If yes, how much does it sell for? And remember to differentiate between art that has actually sold, and art that's being offered for sale but has not yet sold. You want actual selling price data whenever possible. Asking prices on art that has not yet sold can at times be way higher than the art is realistically worth.

    As for the gallery selling the art, do they get all of their art directly from the artist or do they also handle resales from third parties, other dealers or from other outside sources. If they do resell, then that speaks to the current strength of the market for the artist's work. Be aware that some galleries may dance around on this issue and say whatever they feel is necessary to sell you art. You want clear direct explanations and not gibberish or convoluted sidestepping that you can't understand.

    When you're not getting straight answers from the gallery, perhaps think about doing your shopping elsewhere. Or if you really love the art, research the artist online and see who's selling or reselling. Or try asking the gallery once again-- maybe wait a few days, give them a call, and directly ask whether they resell art by the artist, whether they know anyone who resells art by the artist, or what someone should do if they have an artwork they'd like to resell. A fact of the art business is that occasionally (fortunately not often) blunt tactics like this are necessary to get at the truth.

    If you're still not sure the answers you're getting to your secondary market questions, check to see how other galleries perceive the artist's market... and maybe even speak with an independent art consultant or unbiased appraiser or two to get realistic no-conflict overviews of the artist's market. You can also get a pretty good idea of the strength of an artist's market based on the amount of information you can find online-- and the variety of sources you can find that information on (or lack thereof). You want to see a broad cross section of websites and venues that provide information about the artist, or even better yet, buy and sell art by the artist. You don't want to see only one or two or three self-interested gallery websites that represent and sell art by the artist, and nothing more.

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