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: For any artist, having their art sell for big dollars is never a bad thing, whether they own it or not, and no matter how much they originally sold it for. Strong sales are a blessing, and hopefully you'll be fortunate and successful enough in your art career to have them happen to you. Artists continually complain about people reselling their art for more than they paid for it when, in fact, they should be overjoyed whenever this happens.

To begin with, many people buy art because they believe that someday it might go up in value. They read or hear stories about art reselling for more (sometimes for way more) than it was bought for and want to get in on the action. The profit motive is an undeniable 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 that they see it, rightly or wrongly, as a form of investment. They buy it because they like it, of course, but in the backs of their minds they also see themselves as either speculating or investing to certain degrees in their own personal financial futures. That some collectors ultimately turn big profits when they sell 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 people who own your art can eventually sell it for more on resale or secondary markets no matter what you initially sold it for. When they do, this essentially means that all the art you've ever produced and have yet to produce is also perceived as increasing in value. You may hate to see big money changing hands on a work of art that you no longer own and originally sold for less, but look at it this way-- the collector who pays that big price gets only 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 the creator, the factory, and the only producer of your art on the planet. You know what that means? As president and CEO of your art, you can raise your prices whenever you feel like it, hopefully for a good reason. And impressive selling prices on resale markets is about as good of a reason as reasons get. From here on in, you benefit from that price raise on every single work of art you produce and sell. Assuming the market for your art stays strong, your prices can stay high and even go higher for the rest of your career. Who's the biggest financial winner when all's said and done? Not these occasional sellers who resell a piece of your art every now and again. But you... by far! So don't get mad when someone sells high. Celebrate it, and hope those sales go higher and higher.

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 they're able to sell consistently and their prices hold steady over time. So rather than fret about who might make how much money off of your art at some 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 the more of your art that you can get into people's homes and offices, the more people will see it, the more exposure you'll get, and the greater the chances that more people will buy.

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

Both perspectives make sense, but the truth is that without each other, neither would have gotten 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 slim (and they're right), but that doesn't stop them from patronizing promising young artists whose art impacts them in positive ways. And if that art does go way up in value, hopefully they'll express their gratitude to the artists in one way or another even though sharing profits may not be one of them.

As for artists, early buyers and 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 greater financial freedom to keep making art. Also important is the psychological component. You can't put a dollar value on the increased confidence and morale boost that comes from making sales, especially for artists who are just starting out. The affirmation that others see value in their art is exactly what they need to carry on, to believe in themselves, and in the idea that they're doing something meaningful.

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 too early on and as a result, discourage interested potential buyers from buying.) Consistent early sales keep artists "in business" as artists and ultimately become the foundations for successful careers. So in the language of the marketplace, do whatever you can to "move the merchandise" no matter where you're at in your career, and don't waste time worrying about selling "too cheap," how good a deal someone's getting, or what may or may not happen later with their newly acquired art in the future.

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, commitment, and dedication eventually experience the greatest degrees of success, recognition, and acknowledgement for their art. And many enjoy financial success as well. Perseverance, consistency of production, learning, practicing, improving, and moving toward mastering skills and abilities all have to come first. For a successful individual in any field to complain about how little they were paid or otherwise recognized when they first started out makes zero 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 or what they originally paid for it. Because the ultimate winner will be you.


(art by Robert Sagerman)

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