It’s time to talk about the most intimidating part of art collecting—the money.
There are lots of reasons why art and money are hard to talk about. Artists put so much of themselves into their work that slapping a dollar value on it can feel awkward. Most of us also assume that real art costs a lot more than we can afford. But, if you’re buying art to invest in yourself, there’s plenty of original art for sale in your price range. You just need to know where to find it. (More on that later.)
Since no two pieces of art are exactly alike, the way it gets sold is a little like real estate. You list a house at a reasonable price compared to others like it, but the sale price depends on how many people want it. So the list price can be different from the sale price. Art works the same way, a lot of factors go into valuing it, and it’s common to negotiate the price.
Unlike real estate, galleries have an annoying history of trying to keep their prices confidential. You can still run into a lot of “price upon request” nonsense, even for works that only cost hundreds, not millions. Thank goodness, that’s changing. You can find plenty of places to buy art where you won’t risk that gross, my-credit-card’s-been-declined feeling because you ask about a work that turns out to be way out of your price range. Many galleries keep a price list on top of their front desks, along with information about the show and the artists. If you don’t see one, ask for it. If they say they don’t have one (of course, they always do), enjoy the show and then go find art you love at a venue that makes the whole experience as wonderful as it should be.
How do you put a dollar value on art? It might seem like art’s value is totally subjective, but we come to a general consensus about films and books all the time and art develops value the same way. Over time knowledgeable experts exhibit it, write about it, and give the artists awards, and the rest of us collect it.
Artists, listen up! I know it seems like boring paperwork, but that process is summed up in your CV (i.e., resume). Dealers—and us collectors—base a lot of how we value your work on your CV. We use it to learn which experts have given your work their stamp of approval. The more important your stamps are, the more likely you are to keep making important work, so don’t flake on it. Your CV is just as essential as your work. (I’ll dive into how to write and read a CV later.)
Equally, when you’re trying to decide which art to bring home, use an artist’s CV to help you decide between the works you love. Everything else being equal, the artist’s CV should be your tie-breaker.
In the art world, there’s a vast difference between unique and original. “Unique” means there’s only one in the whole, wide world. “Original” means the work is by the artist. Neither necessarily implies the other. A work could be unique but turn out to be a fake (not by the artist) or a work can be original, but just one of many.
8 May 1999 by Zhu Ming, where it hangs outside my office so I can see it as often as possible.
Art is about experiencing something special. The more handcrafted and rare the work is, the more valuable it can become. Size, material, and durability contribute to value, too. That’s why unique works like the painting by Wang Guangyi in my living room are likely to cost more than a “multiple” like this photograph by Zhu Ming. Here’s how it works.
The Wang Guangyi is part of his Great Criticism series, for which he’s best known. In it, he combined elements of Chinese propaganda with Western corporate logos to suggest that both can be equally brainwashing. (I like art that challenges my preconceptions.) Our painting is a large, unique, and original oil on canvas. Since Walt Disney is the most iconic American brand, it conjures up a world of meaning that gets Wang’s point across better than other paintings in the series. It’s also better painted than some of the others—with clean lines, strong composition, and great visual presence. No matter where I hang it, it always dominates the room.
Zhu Ming, on the other hand, was one of the first Chinese performance artists. His work was so controversial that it was banned from public exhibition for years in China. He uses the vulnerability of his nakedness to explore the fragility of life. This photo catches him as he’s emerging from the inside of a life-size plastic bubble, still breathing through a tube. It’s an original work from an artist who was at the forefront of an important artistic movement, the Beijing East Village (yup, like New York’s). The image is immensely powerful, and it was shot by another important artist, Ma Liuming. Our piece is small and it’s only one of multiple prints of the same image. As a work on paper, it’s also much less durable than the oil on canvas. Canvas can be mended fairly well, but paper can be damaged by moisture, and, if it’s cut, is really difficult to fix. So, if the glass gets smashed, it can slice the art beyond repair. Regardless, the Zhu Ming is such a haunting image that everyone is drawn to it—even the cable guy.
The value of art isn’t subjective. It’s based on a combination of factors—some intrinsic to the work itself, some completely practical, and others that have nothing to do with the art at all. The sheer cost of the materials can make a work valuable. Paintings tend to fetch higher prices than sculpture because they’re more convenient; they don’t take up floor space. (As a sculpture fiend, this drives me crazy!) Then, there’s the roll of the dice. A few years ago, I watched a gorgeous oil painting sell at auction for less than $11,000. It was a sin to see a 400-year-old landscape in beautiful condition so devalued, but the Old Masters were out of style and the seller needed cash.
Keeping all these factors in mind, you can collect art that enriches your life on any budget. So get out there and start bringing it home!
Top image // Walt Disney (Great Criticism series), an oil painting on canvas by Wang Guangyi that commands my living room.
Holly Hager is an art collector and the founder of Curatious. Previously an author and a professor, she now dedicates herself full-time to help artists make a living from their art by making the joys of art more accessible to everyone.