When Other People Make Money Selling Your Art

I long ago lost count of how many artists spend way too much time brooding, fretting, agonizing, seething, ranting, and otherwise confounding their cosmic harmonies over money, particularly how much money other people make who sell their art-- people like gallery owners, resale dealers, private parties, and auction houses. In retaliation to these parasitic profit mongers, some artists get so upset that they go ballistic and try to micromanage their selling prices, insert themselves into business transactions where they don't belong, go draconian about who what when where or how they'll sell their art, and in the end, mess up all kinds of deals and opportunities just to snare that few extra bucks they believe they deserve. The most contentious among them become so resentful and difficult to deal with, they completely compromise the markets for their art. And that, of course, is never good.

What's amazing about many of these artists is that they're often really talented, their art sells, demand is healthy, and their prices hold steady or even increase over time. Their art appeals to so many people that it's capable of generating sales in a variety of venues, sales that a variety of people can and do profit from. Is that bad? I don't think so. They carp and moan when in truth, they should be eternally ecstatically grateful. All artists should have such problems. The truth is that the more money more people make transacting in your art, the better it is for you-- always-- regardless of whether or not you directly profit from each and every transaction.

Here's how this works...

One of the main reasons people buy art is they believe, right or wrong, that it might one day be worth more than they pay for it. They buy it because they like it, of course, but in the backs of their minds, they hope and pray that the future bodes big bucks for their new acquisitions. In reality, the overwhelming majority of buyers never see profits over cost. But a small percentage do. A far smaller percentage turn colossal profits, we read about those profits in the news, these rare returns on "investment" buff the overall health of the art market, veteran buyers keep buying, new buyers jump in to claim their piece of the action-- and that, dear artsters, is very very good for all art and all artists everywhere.

But wait. There's more. Artists and people who buy and own art share a mutual interest in that they both want their art to ultimately be worth as much money as possible. The partnership is so perfect that without each other, neither would have anything. Buyers would have no art; artists would have no money. Peace and love prevails, right? Not so fast. Dark clouds loom on the horizon and thunder rumbles in the distance. Why? Because artists and people who buy and own art share another mutual interest in that the more money art becomes worth, the more of that more money everybody wants. That's the snag. As soon as art prices start heading for the stratosphere, everybody gets all greedy and starts fighting. Sad but true.

Buyers who buy low early on in artists' careers and who sell high later when those artists become famous claim they took risks and had the foresight to patronize and support potential talents when they were young and struggling. Buyers believe they deserve every penny of profit they make when they sell their art. Artists, on the other hand, claim they do all the work; early buyers do nothing to advance their art careers other than shell out pocket change and then sit on the goods. Artists want in on the action-- percentages of third party sales (which, incidentally, they're entitled to in some states and countries). What a mess! It's one of those conflicts that will likely never be resolved. But for you artists, let's at least parse this out from a wealth management perspective and hopefully lend a little clarity and detente to the situation.

To begin with, the good news for artists is that the more money their art sells for, no matter who sells it, where it sells or who profits how much (or how little) from those sales, the more money every work of art those artists have ever produced and-- here's the best part-- have yet to produce, is worth. In other words, regardless of how exasperating it is for you to see big money change hands on your dime, on art you no longer own or on art someone else sells for you at a hefty commission-- you win. You see, the buyer only gets one piece of art; the seller only makes one commission. You, on the other hand, are the monopoly; you are the factory and sole proprietor of every single work of art you have yet to create for the remainder of your days. And each successive benchmark sale of your art, wherever it happens or whoever it's between, entitles you to place successively higher selling prices and make greater profits on every subsequent piece of art you create and sell anywhere under any circumstances. Period. YOU, dear artist, are the undisputed principal beneficiary. Congratulations!!

But wait. There's more. Imagine one day in the not too distant future, a piece of your art sells for five or six or maybe even seven figures at a major international auction house-- a piece of art you sold new for chump change way back when-- and you don't get a single dime of the take. Should you be blissed or pissed?

Right. Blissed. Bigtime. This means your art has acquired what's called "secondary market" or "resale" value where it's capable of selling on the block at public sales with no fanfare, politics, reps, gallery owners, barkers, finagling or sleight of hand-- high bidder takes all. Collectors fight to own your art with their hard earned dollars, and it sells for one reason only-- because it's by you. This is the ideal financial outcome for any artist, or at least it should be-- job security of the highest order-- and the most difficult dollars and cents endgame in the art world to attain (few artists ever do). Attaining it means your art essentially ascends to the status of a publicly traded commodity with cash value, similar to stocks or bonds, regardless of where it sells. You get this far in your career and you'll never have to show at a gallery again if you don't feel like it (even though by that point you'll likely have more opportunities and offers than you can begin to handle, and the best will be just too damn good to turn down). What does it all mean? Let sales happen. The bigger they are, the better. Stand back; be happy. It's all good.

As for those fortunate early buyers, the ones who bought cheap, the ones who clean up big at the box office later, the ones whose faith in you and your art allowed you to endure the tough times-- these are the people you should be the most grateful for. They're the ones who loved you first, the ones who recognized your talent and brilliance ahead of everybody else. They're the brave pioneers who expressed their respect, reverence and appreciation for your art not only with lip service but with money, money that allowed you to survive and ultimately to triumph as an artist. So let them have their little moments in the sun; yours will last the rest of your life.

Those modest first sales are the most critical in any artist's career. They allow you to keep making art, to follow your dreams. Think of how many artists fall flat because they can't make enough money to survive when they're just starting out. Their options are limited-- either stop making art, take a job to support making art, or turn art-making into a hobby in their spare time. Early sales keep artists "in business" and ultimately solidify the foundation of any successful art career.

One final point: In every profession, art included, you start at the bottom and claw your way to the top. Those with the most talent ultimately make the most money, and for any winner in any field to complain about how little they made when they first started out makes absolutely no sense. It's a complete unadulterated waste of time. So get busy, make art, advance your career, and hope that someday your work sells for lots and lots and lots of money, no matter who sells it.

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