Artist Letters, Photographs, Documents
and Personal Papers All Have Value

Q: My great grandmother was friends and corresponded with a well-known American artist for several years in the early 1900s, and I have a number of letters and two photographs of the artist saved from the relationship. Are these worth anything?

A: Any documents, letters, photographs, and other manuscript materials relating to artists' careers are collectible and have value. Dealers, collectors, museums, archives, and other institutions acquire such items primarily for their historical significance, and occasionally for their value as art objects. These materials provide insight into how artists lived their lives and contain everything from ordinary day-to-day ramblings to important facts about specific works of art, business and personal relationships, love affairs, career milestones and more.

Artist letters can be worth anything from a few dollars each to many thousands of dollars each. On the low end of the price continuum might be a two-sentence letter from a minor artist to an art dealer asking whether the dealer has sold any of the artist's paintings in recent months. At the high end would be illustrated letters such as those by famous American Western artist Charles Marion Russell. Prime illustrated letters by Russell can top $100,000 dollars each. For the most part, however, average letters with average content by reasonably well-known artists range in the mid-hundreds of dollars.

In general, the most valuable artist letters are illustrated, and the more finished the illustrations, the more valuable the letters. Good content also increases value. For example, a brief letter from an artist saying hello to the recipient and talking about the weather is worth less than a five-pager detailing an arrangement for the artist to produce a large painting or sculpture for a major collector.

As for photographs of artists, they're evaluated in much the same way as letters. To begin with, artist photographs are generally more collectible than letters because art collecting is a visual pursuit, and photographs are almost always more visual than letters. In terms of value, the more complex and interesting an image and the more important the artist, the more the photograph tends to be worth. A photograph showing an artist at work in his or her studio and surrounded by other artists, for example, is worth significantly more than a simple seated portrait showing the artist from the waist up. Add additional dollars if the photograph is signed or inscribed by the artist, and still more if it is also signed by the photographer, and still more if the photographer is known.

Two additional factors influencing the value of artist photographs have to do with who the photographers were and how old the artists were when the photographs were taken. Briefly, the more important the photographer and the younger the artist (the earlier the artist was in his or her career), the more valuable the photograph tends to be. Condition, size, overall composition, and whether or not a photograph is known or published also impact value. Artist photographs range in price from the low hundreds to hundreds of thousands of thousands of dollars each for the finest images of the most famous artists taken by the most famous photographers.

Personal scrapbooks, journals or studio files are perhaps the most valuable manuscript items that artists can maintain during their lifetimes, and are often the single most important archives relating to artists' careers. Americans in particular didn't start to research and write extensively about their artists, especially lesser known ones, until relatively recently. Many other artists were not fully recognized for their talents until after they had passed away and, as a result, little is known about their lives and careers. Scrapbooks and files pertaining to these sorts of artists are quite valuable and highly sought after.

A better scrapbook or studio file contains newspaper and magazine clippings about an artist, catalogs of exhibitions that the artist participated in, photographs of the artist in various situations like art openings and events, letters from collectors, and commendations or awards. More general items pertaining to the artist's local or regional art community that document activities of fellow artists, critics, dealers and collectors also enhance value. The best scrapbooks and files contain enough detailed information and memorabilia to literally reconstruct artists' entire careers.

The Holy Grail of artist papers, documents and related materials? Perhaps it might be a letter in Michelangelo's hand identifying the woman known as Mona Lisa. You can only imagine the price such a document might fetch at auction-- millions of dollars at least. In second place... considering that Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime, the receipt for that painting, if indeed it ever existed, would also easily be worth well in excess of a million dollars.

Always be on the lookout for any papers or documents relating to an artist's life and career, no matter how insignificant they might seem (and if you're an artist, perhaps think about setting select materials aside rather than throwing them away-- they may not seem like much now, but history may well render them treasures). Smaller items are referred to as "ephemera" and larger ones as "manuscript materials." They all have value and they're all worth saving. These include old bills of sale, exhibition catalogues, personal journals, contracts or agreements, business cards, show announcements, and even cancelled checks. No matter how much money they may or may not be worth, they are destined to enrich our lives and teach us about the history of art and the artists who created it.

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