Famous Artists With Low Art Auction Records Prices?

Q: I own a small collage done by a Surrealist artist in the early 1940's. I checked to see whether any of his art had come up at auction over the past few years and found only one listing of a drawing that sold for $300. He's mentioned in all histories of Surrealism, though, and referred to as a fairly important artist in the movement. Why aren't his auction records higher? Is my collage only worth only a few hundred dollars?

A: The answer to your first question is that this artist's work rarely appears at auction and for that reason, no representative auction records exist. If good pieces appeared more often, their selling prices would be substantially higher than a few hundred dollars each. The $300 drawing that you mention may have been very minor or not by the artist at all. Another possible explanation for the low selling price is that it came up at a sale where only one buyer recognized its value and came away with a sleeper. If it had been any good whatsoever and more than one collector had recognized the name, it would have sold for quite a bit more.

Are you wondering what I'm talking about? Then hire an appraiser-- like maybe me, for instance. And now back to the article...

A collectible artist's work may not appear at auction for several reasons. Sometimes one gallery or dealer controls the entire estate and only sells through retail outlets. Other times, the artist's body of work is small and hardly comes up for sale anywhere. Additional possibilities are that virtually all the artist's work is already in museums and private collections or in posession of the artist's family and rarely put up for sale.

Whatever the explanation, your example points up the importance of doing both biographical and price research when assessing the value of any work of art. You can make big mistakes if you don't. On infrequent occasions, highly collectible artists have poor auction records. Likewise, some highly collectible artists have only small listings in standard reference books. Get less than the full story and you could end up valuing or selling your art at far less than it's worth.

The answer to your second question is that the collage is worth more like $3000-$5000 than only a few hundred. You showed excellent judgement by performing complete research, noting the inconsistency between biographical information and auction price results, and consulting an expert before selling out cheaply. But still-- you need professional help if you're planning on buying, selling, or otherwise transitioning the collage to a new owner.

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