Art Dealers: Artist Gallery Prices and Price Research

It happens at art galleries, antique shops, collectibles shows, collectives, flea markets, estate sales, and in private transactions. It happens with price guides, auction records, appraisals, expert advice, casual chit-chat, and hearsay. And now it's happing on the Internet. People who own art that they're interested in selling are now using the Internet to figure out how much that art is worth and how much they sell it for. They know that the more information they can find about art values and what art sells for, the more accurately they can set their prices. But first, a little history.....

Way way back in the old days (like the 1960's) sellers figured out asking prices mainly by going from gallery to gallery, antique shop to antique shop, expert to expert, dealer to dealer, and auction house to auction house. Because of the limited access to printed information, those who lived and worked in the world's major art centers or who travelled the most and knew the most people were the most qualified to accurately price art.

By the 1970's companies began to publish and widely market price guides and auction records. Locating price information became easier (for those who knew these references existed and could afford them), but at the same time, pricing art for sale became more of an abstract, almost a guessing game process. Since using compendiums of art prices was nothing like speaking firsthand to living breathing knowledgeable human beings to discuss and obtain price information, less experienced sellers using the new price guides and auction records tended to take the highest prices they could find and tack them onto their art. That's the downside to price reference research-- not knowing which selling prices pertain most directly to a given work of art. The upside is that while people can pass on wrong art price information mouth-to-mouth, or innacurately interpret that information, art price guides and auction records deal only in facts and are almost always accurate. The overall effect, then, was far to the upside in that more people than ever before could now price their art more accurately than they could before.

Now we have the Internet. The advent of online pricing has distanced the process even further from the realities of the marketplace. In many cases, people researching art values have no idea who posts what price information, how accurate that information is, how relevant that information is, what those posters' qualifications are to price art, how those prices are arrived at, or under what circumstances the art is for sale or has sold. Computer searches make price misreads increasingly likely because they're arrived at without the aid of traditional research techniques. To complicate matters further, unscrupulous sellers deliberately post misleading prices for art that may or may not even be genuile. At least with price guides and auction records, you can read about the authors and understand why they're qualified to publish the price information that they have. In many cases, Internet information is so difficult to qualify and the sources so untraceable and vague that the chances for innacurate pricing are greater than ever.

The upshot of all this is that if you think you've priced your art right from online data searches, you can still be wrong-- sometimes very wrong. This may sound like double-talk, but here's an example. Suppose you live in rural Kentucky, sell antiques out of a booth in a small collective, and are trying to find prices for an etching by a regional Texas artist. You locate the website of a Dallas gallery, find similar etchings priced and for sale, and put a comparable but slightly lower price on yours. To assume that the gallery's prices are good anywhere and at any time can be a big mistake.

For all you know, this gallery may exclusively handle the artist's estate, be attempting to create a market for the work by asking record high selling prices, and have a $40,000 a month overhead in the best gallery district in town. The owner may be one of the most important experts and respected dealers of Texas art and artists in the country and have access to all the wealthiest collectors, and therefore price his etchings at the top of the market. Outside of that gallery, the etchings may be worth nowehere near that much.

These days, I can be visiting a shop at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere and find prices equivalent to what one might expect to find at a gallery on 57th Street in New York City or on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. This happens because a top retail price gets posted on the Internet, someone copies it without understanding it, someone else copies the copy, and so on until equally ridiculous prices can be found all over the country.

Finding an art price on a computer screen does not begin to equate with in-depth market research. You also need to understand why and under what conditions it is what it is. Hopefully the next stage in the Internet art pricing evolution will be the proliferation of more sophisticated and competent research techniques and a deeper understanding of pricing guidelines. Remember this-- on your way to finding out "how much" don't forget to also find out "why," "where," and "under what circumstances." And if after all that you still have questions, hire a qualified art appraiser to sort it all out.

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