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  • When Your Art Sells for Big $$$

    But You Don't Own It

    Q: I'm just starting out in my career and one thing really bothers me. I think about selling my art for low prices today and then years from now watching people resell it for many times what I originally sold it for. It's a problem for me and I'm sure plenty of other artists feel the same way. How do I deal with this?

    A: Having their art sell for big dollars is not a problem for artists; it's a blessing, and hopefully you'll be fortunate and successful enough in your art career to have it. Artists continually complain about people reselling their art for more than they paid for it when, in fact, they should be overjoyed that this happens. To begin with, many people who would never otherwise buy art do so in large part because they read or hear stories about art reselling for more (sometimes for way more) than than was originally paid for it. The profit motive is a fact of the art business and like it or not, it keeps art selling and people buying.

    One of the main reasons people buy art is they believe, right or wrong, that it might someday increase in value. They buy it because they like it, of course, but in the back of their minds they also see themselves as either speculating or investing to a certain degree on the artists' as well as on their own personal financial futures. That a percentage of these collectors ultimately turn big profits on their purchases significantly contributes to the overall health of the art market by making news, focusing attention on the investment aspects of art, and attracting new collectors-- and that's good.

    Rather than complain, you should pray that your art sells for big bucks on secondary markets. When it does, this essentially means that all the art you've ever produced and have yet to produce also goes up in value. You may hate to see money changing hands on a work of art that you no longer own, but look at it this way-- the collector who pays that big secondary market price only gets one piece of art and the dealer or collector who sells it only profits from that sale one time. You, on the other hand, are now perfectly justified in raising your prices based on that sale, and can now enjoy greater profits every single time you sell a work of art for the rest of your career. Who's the biggest financial winner when your resale market takes off? You!

    Another point to keep in mind is that the overwhelming majority of artists never experience huge increases in the values of their art. Most are more than delighted when their prices simply hold steady and are able to sell consistently. So rather than worry about who might make how much money off of your art at some indeterminate point in the future, do everything you can now to get your art out in front of the public, and when someone likes it enough to start talking money, do whatever you can to make that sale. Why? Because that proud owner will likely become a fan for life.

    As for rising prices, artists and collectors share a mutual interest in that they both want their art to sell for as much as possible. They share the additional interest that if their art does sell for a lot of money, they want as much of that money as possible-- and herein lies the conflict. Collectors say they took risks and had the foresight to patronize and support the artists when they were young and struggling. Artists say collectors only took advantage and did nothing to advance them in their careers other than buy art years ago and hold onto it.

    Well-- they're both right. Without each other, neither would be anywhere. When artists are young and unknown and their art is affordable, collectors who buy it do so primarily because they like it. Most are fully aware that the chances of it going way up in value are remote (and they're right), but that doesn't stop them from patronizing promising young artists whose art impacts them in a positive way. And if that art does go way up in value, hopefully they express their gratitude to the artists in one way or another even though this is not necessarily a requirement.

    As for artists, the early collectors are the people they should be the most grateful for. They're the ones who show faith first and who show it with money. Those critical early sales benefit artists in multiple ways, the most important of which is by giving them increased financial freedom to continue making art on their own terms without having to take unrelated outside jobs. There's also the psychological component, the morale boost, the affirmation that others see value in their art, and the encouragement to carry on.

    Think of the number of artists who never make enough sales to survive early on and have to give up their careers entirely and take jobs in other fields, or relegate their art to the status of a pastime or hobby. (As in aside, included in that group are artists who price too high early on and as a result, discourage those who show early interest in their work from buying.) Consistent early sales keep artists "in business" as artists and ultimately become the foundations for their successful careers. So in the language of the marketplace, do whatever you can to "move the merchandise" and don't waste time fretting about what may or may not happen later.

    One final point: In all professions, art included, people start out at the bottom and gradually work their way to the top. Those who have the most talent eventually make the most money. Perseverance, dedication, commitment, and learning, practicing and improving your skills and abilities all have to come first, and for a successful individual in any field to complain about how little they were paid when they first started out makes hardly any sense. So get to work, enjoy making art, advance in your career and hope that one day your work sells for lots and lots of money, no matter who owns it.


    (art by Robert Sagerman)

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