How an Artist's Death

Impacts 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. They're pretty old now and I'm starting to think about selling. When's the best time to do that? Should I sell now or wait until after they die? Will I make more money the longer I wait?

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 buyers as well as artists believe in this posthumous profit scenario, but in truth, it's more of a myth than a reality.

How this death-equals-profits idea got started is unclear, but it's perpetuated in large part by dealers and galleries, particularly in the commercial realm, who'll say anything to make a quick buck off of naive buyers when it comes to selling art by aging artists. In your artist's case, as with the overwhelming majority of artists out there, death will have little if any impact on the trajectory of their selling prices, marketplace demand, or "investment potential" (I hate that phrase) of their 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 either slow their production down substantially or stop making art altogether at some point, sometimes well in advance of their transitions to that great art studio in the sky. Increases in the values of their art during their careers take place slowly, sensibly, predictably, and in an entirely orderly manner.

For the most part, these gradual price trajectories continue on into the afterlife. Anyone who understands the art market or who seriously follows the lives and careers of artists is aware of this. With infrequent exceptions, the inevitable passings of artists come as absolutely no surprise to anyone and consequently, there's no sudden or significant run on the art, upward spiralling prices, or other market upheavals. Galleries continue selling, buyers continue buying, and prices continue doing whatever they were doing pretty much the same as before the sad news.

As for you artists who believe that the only solution to your art not selling or your art not selling for "what it's really worth," is a visit from the grim reaper, think again. If you don't establish a consistent track record of showing, selling, awards, distinctions, reasonably regular news coverage, cultivating a significant online following, or achieve other notable career accomplishments while you're alive, don't expect fame and fortune to mystically materialize once you're gone. Except in very rare cases where relative unknowns are miraculously discovered (or rediscovered), that simply ain't gonna happen.

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 by collectors. Second-- and here's the biggie-- they have to either have sudden unpredicted occurrences in their lives that have major impacts on their art, or die prematurely or unexpectedly, thereby catching the marketplace by surprise. When that happens, a sort of market panic or temporary insanity may set 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, impulse, emotion, and people trying to get over on each other with better-buy-now-or-else rationales. As for reality and facts, they take a temporary back seat to the mad rush. 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 increases in more predictable manner, though those increases remained significant.

During the heat of the stampede, 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 items as mundane as vintage cookie jars that under normal circumstances might have sold for maybe $50 or $100 or so. These days, you can literally witness the "death effect" in real time among buyers and sellers on resale and auction websites like eBay when celebrities pass away. The profit vultures circle the carrion, racing to corner as much memorabilia as they can, and then throw it back onto the market at premium prices in hopes of making some fast money 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 go down when they pass. For example, estate executors or family members may mismanage an artist's estate by dumping all the art onto the market at once and as a result, temporarily depress prices because supply becomes way 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 exceeding the $1000 mark.

As someone who regularly advises on artist estates, perhaps the most common reasons why artists' prices remain flat or even drop after death is that they had little or no consistent track records of sales to begin with, few if any auction records, lack of gallery representation, infrequent or irregular gallery shows, sold mainly privately to people they knew, or stopped actively showing or selling for years or even decades, or otherwise kept their art off the market. Regardless of what they might have sold their art for at the heights of their careers, their profiles and markets often have to be completely 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. At worst, frustrated descendants not knowing what to do can give up and throw it out.

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


(sculpture by Patricia Piccinini)

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