Understanding the Art Market

Is Key to Selling or Reselling Art

Q: A few years ago, I bought five paintings by an up-and-coming artist. Since then, I've watched his prices go higher and higher. Galleries are now selling his paintings for a little over twice what I paid for mine. Recently, I decided to put two of mine back on the market and take some profits. I thought selling them would be easy, but I haven't been able to get an offer that's anywhere near what I'm asking (the same price they would sell for at a gallery). Nobody's even offered me what I originally paid. What am I doing wrong?

A: No matter what kind of art you're selling, not only do you have to understand the overall market for the art and artists in question, but you also need to know your place in the art world food chain. To begin with, you are a private seller, not a gallery. You cannot price at top retail like galleries do and expect anyone to buy. Galleries have reputations, standings and profiles in the art community. They have access to buyers and collectors, and more importantly, they have their trust. Galleries are full-service businesses offering all kinds of amenities that private sellers can't such as money-back guarantees, inside information, expertise on the art and artists they sell, advisory services, research and documentation, market insights, access to the latest news and developments, transportation and installation of art, and more. Furthermore, they invest considerable sums of money to represent, exhibit, promote and otherwise develop and advance the reputations and careers of their artists. You offer none of that.

The truth is that your art is worth only what someone is willing to pay. Just because you see similar art in galleries at big prices does not automatically mean those prices are easy to get. The art might be a slow seller, the gallery may actually sell at significantly lower prices behind the scenes, and so on. Not only that, but reselling art as a private seller is entirely different than selling it for the first time out of a gallery with all the fanfare and attention that fresh new work normally gets.

In other words, you'd better get used to the idea that you will most likely have to sell below retail. How far below depends on the demand and market for the art. In some cases, the gap between retail and secondary market prices can be substantial, like for example, if there's a glut of the artist's art available online. You'll probably need help selling as well, like through a dealer, gallery, auction house or secondary market website where you'll have to pay a commission. So rather than beat your head against the wall wondering why you can't get top retail, here are some art market facts to help you better understand and determine how much your art is realistically worth and how much you might ultimately sell for:

These days, you can find all kinds of price information online. As a reseller, you need to know how much art by the artist is selling for on secondary markets, not at retail galleries. For example, if art by the artist sells regularly at auctions, look for selling prices of pieces similar to yours. That's probably what yours will be worth. Many auction houses now have their own searchable databases. Other websites allow you to search many auctions at once, and check eBay too while you're at it. If you regularly research prices, you may want to subscribe to a pay database.

When the artist has no auction history, or the art doesn't regularly sell at auction, your job will be harder. Try searching the artist's name along with search terms like "for sale", "price", "sold" and so on. Also try the terms "wanted" or "wanted to buy". Serious dealers, collectors or buyers sometimes actively advertise to purchase works by certain artists. But be careful here. You'd better know what you're doing before contacting any of these people because they're pros and you're not.

Check social media sites for prices as well. More and more secondary market sellers are using social media to get the word out about what they have for sale. You might get lucky, and contacting sellers is easy. But a strong word of caution here: Sellers are not generally eager to share knowledge about how they set their prices or discuss any other market information. They want to sell and rarely have interest in helping the competition. Occasionally you'll find someone willing to answer your questions though, so at least give it a try (within reason).

Your goal through all of this is to find as many price results as you can from as many different sources as possible. No matter how high or how low they are, save every link. Don't just pay attention to the high prices and forget the rest. The more you can assemble, the better an assessment you can ultimately make in terms of what a reasonable asking price for your art might be. And pay the most attention to prices on art similar to yours.

Unfortunately, evaluating search results is not always easy. For many artists, secondary market selling and asking prices are all over the board. You might find reasonable selling prices, ridiculously high selling prices from deluded owners who think their art is worth way more than it really is, selling prices that seem like bargains but are for artworks that may be inferior or problematic in some way, and even occasional forgeries that get mixed in with the rest. In other words, if you don't know what you're doing, you can find yourself in deep over your head pretty fast.

The best way to go is to hire an appraiser or consultant to do the legwork for you, preferably one who can recommend options for selling as well. Let them interpret the data and suggest prices for you. Sometimes trying to do it all on your own can be far more costly than paying a skilled professional to do it for you.


Need consulting or advising on how to price and sell one or more works of art? I can definitely help. You're always welcome to email me-- Alan Bamberger-- or call 415.931.7875 to make an appointment.

artist art

(art by Joey Enos)

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