The Art of Pricing Art image

Making Sense of the Price of Art

What artists and collectors need to know about the valuation of art.

I am frequently asked about the price of art. Beginning artists want to know how to get started when they don’t have a track record and established artists wonder if their prices are where they should be. Conversely, collectors want to know how an artist came up with his or her prices and if those prices are appropriate. Thus, a blog to help you do the numbers. Lots to cover, so let’s jump in.

Check for a Pulse

If you are a living artist or a collector, presumably living, and you’re wondering how art is priced, this section is for you. 

(Dead artists and deceased collectors, please feel free to skip ahead. You earned it.)

Artists, god love ya, but you can be all over the map with pricing and it’s making my head spin. It’s also causing collectors to wonder if what they’re buying is worth it.

Collectors are buying a product–yes, a work of art they have fallen in love with–but it’s a luxury, which is why they compare your prices to other things they also need or want. Once collectors start doing some mental math and making comparisons, you can bet they’re going to second guess you and themselves.

So, how do you keep collectors from second guessing themselves right out of a purchase?

Excellent question.  

Do you need new friends?

I’m sounding like a broken record here, but the art world is famously opaque. Let’s face it, we like obfuscation. It’s, well, arty. And fun. Really fun. Which is why I love writing this blog. The art world provides an endless well of secrets from which to draw. 

Artists, here’s the deal. Collectors are smart people. We know they’re smart because they like art. Their friends know they’re smart, too. Their friends are also smart, but not necessarily interested in art, which means they’re not as smart as collectors. Are you with me? 

So, these non-collector friends try to hide the fact that they don’t care about art and would rather spend their money selfishly on themselves (kidding…kind of…actually, they’re not reading this so, not kidding). And, non-collectors who haven’t invested the time and energy into learning about art try to hide this lack of savvy by making fun of the art that their collector friends have chosen. 

Not cool. But it happens all the time. 

Apart from the obvious solution–get new friends–the collector needs access to more knowledge about you and what you’re up to as well as some solid intel when it comes to how you price your work.  

Ground Rules

In a nutshell, please adhere to the following:

1. DON’T price by the amount of time it took you. Some pieces take a ridiculous amount of time, others just flow. That’s the life of an artist; you learn to take the victories with the struggles. 

2. DON’T price by how much you love the thing you just created. You will create something you love even more. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but you will. Let it go and trust in the process.

3. DON’T price based on what other artists your same age or socio-economic or education level are pricing their work at. This isn’t a race. Wish them well and get back to work. 

4. DO, for the love of Pete, price consistently by the square inch. (Dead artists, hang on, I haven’t gotten to you yet.)

Ugh! Math...

Yeah, I hear ya, you went to school for art not math. Don’t worry, we’re not getting fancy here. 

Step 1. Figure out the square inch, which is height x width. 

8 x 10 = 80 square inches

Easy peasy. 

Step 2. Assign a dollar amount. (I’ll help you figure this out next.)

Here’s what happens when you pick one amount and stick with it for every size painting you create.

8 x 10 inches = 80 x $5/sq in = $400

16 x 20 inches = 320 x $5/sq in = $1,600

30 x 40 inches = 1200 x $5/sq in = $6,000

The small ones are a little low and the big ones are kind of high.

The Sliding Scale

When you adjust by assigning the smaller works a higher square inch price and reduce that amount as you get bigger, it starts to feel more equitable. And, for lots of artists, this gets a little closer to assigning an hourly wage to the work, since creating art takes time no matter what size you’re working on. 

8 x 10 inches = 80 x $10/sq in = $800

16 x 20 inches = 320 x $7/sq in = $2,240

30 x 40 inches = 1200 x $5/sq in = $6,000

Where to Start When You're Starting

My very best advice for those of you who haven’t started selling your work (and no, sales to friends and family don’t count):

Price it low, sell it fast, and use the proceeds to buy more supplies. 

Here’s why. When you over-value your early work–yes, it took you a long time and you’re proud of the breakthrough pieces–buyers don’t get why a novice’s work is so expensive relative to artists who’ve been in the market a lot longer.

The next thing you know, the collector is making comparisons. End result: no sale.

Same with dealers and curators. If you price your work too high, we evaluate your work based on what’s out there, but when we check out your accomplishments and don’t find any, we know you have an unrealistic and overinflated sense of your work, and will take great offense if we even brooch the topic of prices. So, we take a hard pass. 

The other really, really important thing about selling work at affordable prices when you are just starting out is that you won’t have stacks of inventory piling up. This means you won’t be hanging on to that one amazing work that is your all time best ever. Because when you hang on to the best ever thing you’ve made, it will sit in your studio and taunt you. It will whisper: You’ll never do anything better. Give up. It’s useless to continue.

When to give yourself a raise

There are a number of factors to suss out before raising your prices.

1. Consider taking a 10% increase every 1-2 years. This is a small enough amount to not be readily noticed and scare people off, but big enough that collectors can see that their “investment” in you is going up. 

2. Check the economic forecast. If we’re headed into a recession, maybe hold off another year. 

3. Know your client base. If you’re clients are in the tech industry, for example, consider how things are going in their world. If everything is booming, no matter what the economy is doing, you might be ok with a price increase.

NOTE: If you never take a price increase, you could see your collector base become as stagnant as your prices. Keeping your prices at the same rate may feel safe, but in the long-run, that security blanket will drag you right into obscurity. The market wants to see a recognition of your growth and success in the form of a price increase, so take it. 

Can I adjust for gallery commissions

That’s a big NO.

Think of your work and the prices you command like any other commodity. There is a price it trades for, that price is listed in shows, on wall tags and websites, which means it’s verifiable. And collectors WILL verify your prices. If they see prices are higher in one place and less elsewhere, two very bad things happen.

First, buyers will go around your galleries and exhibitions and call you directly. Dealers always hear about this and will kick you out of their world faster than you can say, “Oh, crap, Rose warned me about this!” On top of that, now you’re in the position of having to haggle and sell yourself when you really should be in the studio making art.

Second, you have devalued your work to the lowest number listed anywhere your work is for sale. Why would anyone pay more? 

Remember, collectors don’t always know why something is priced as it’s priced, but they are smart enough to know when things look fishy. And there are simply too many terrific artists who are being consistent with their prices; collectors don’t need to go through the hassle of figuring out a pricing system that doesn’t make sense.

Framing and other considerations

Instead of adjusting your prices to the frame, select frames that are roughly 10-15% of your retail price for that work. For example, a $1,000 painting should have a frame that cost you $100-$150. 

Shipping…yeah, that’s a tough one. And now most shows won’t pay for work coming to them or going back to you. Consider investing in air float crates. They are pricy, but you can reuse them many times. Plus they weigh less than wooden crates, which are unwieldily and cost ridiculous amounts of money to send. (And often arrive damaged because delivery people drop them or run fork lifts through them….)

Buying from the dearly departed

COLLECTORS, if you’ve dipped a toe into the deceased art market, you know all bets are off when figuring out pricing.

I covered some of this in my last blog, Collect Like a Pro, which gave you all tips and tricks for navigating the market. Basically, when art hits the secondary market, the prices are determined by a few factors:

  1. Supply and demand
  2. Importance of that work amid the artist’s entire body of work, i.e. was it a seminal piece that marked a major turning point in the aritst’s career?
  3. Quality of the work–is there any damage, has it been conserved, etc.
  4. Provenance–who owned it and whether that collection was important. 
  5. Exhibitions, awards, honors, etc., for the work and the artist.

Collectors who are considering buying historically significant works would be best advised to work with an art consultant or go through a trusted gallery. There are a LOT of fakes out there. An advisor can help you find and buy work that is within your budget and has the pedigree you want for your investment.

An Art Afterlife insurance policy

ARTISTS, this is important. When you’re gone, dealers and collectors will be the judge and jury of your work using the above criteria. Remember when I said not to price things based on how much time it took you or how much you liked a work of art? It still doesn’t matter…right now; what does matter is that you keep a record of those breakthrough works and why they were important. Also, record info about your process and who you were palling around with at the time. 

The things that hurt the secondary market valuation of art:

  1. Bad auction sales
  2. Lack of visibility in national shows
  3. No catalogues or other critical writing about your work (i.e., astute writing by authorities in the art world)

Here are some things to do now to support the valuation of your work and boost your prices while you can enjoy the dough:

  1. Write things down about work that is important to you.
  2. Try to get your best work into major exhibitions so there is a record of those pieces.
  3. Work with galleries to get prominent collectors to purchased important works.
  4. Seek museums to collect your work, even if that means a discount or donation.

If you’re still wondering about pricing, ask fellow artists and dealers to chime in. And feel free to send me an email. I’ll take a look and give you my two-cents. 

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

12 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Price of Art

  1. Thought provoking as always, Rose. I wonder, what are your thoughts are about pricing commissioned pieces? I’ve heard conflicting advice about whether charging more for commissions is acceptable and also how much more is acceptable. Painting commissioned pieces sure is a lot more work and stress for me as an artist!

    • Great question. I’m curious to hear what other artists do but my sense is that, if you do charge more, perhaps it’s considered a per diem fee that covers travel and extra expenses. This way your prices stay the same across the board. I also strongly suggest that artists take 50% down, non-refundable, have a contract, and layout the ground rules for things like how much input the client can have.

      When it comes to commissions–and I write about this in the blog, “Art Buying Etiquette 101”–I always try to get my clients to ask for right of first refusal if the artist they want to commission does a work that is similar to what they wanted to commission. This way the artist is free to do the work they want to do, which, in my opinion, is always better, and the client can get first crack at something without the 50% down and fear of not liking what the artist comes up with.

  2. Hi Rose…really appreciate and respect the experience and knowledge you have on so much that is related to Art and Artists. I will be 81 in a couple of months and have been painting and teaching Art for over 60 years. About ten years ago I had a back surgery that went bad and left me with nerve damage and in chronic pain. Since then I have a rare auto immune pancreatitis disease and other health issues…the point I am making..all of this has somewhat marginalized my life and my expectations with my Art and teaching. I can still turn out some pretty good work, considering all things..I can’t do paintings much bigger than 16″x20″. I often have so much pain I can’t or don’t want to work and never quite sure when that will happen. Often doing my work helps me forget all of that, but I feel sometimes affects my quality. I use to be in all of the Major shows and some very good galleries, but have pretty much backed off of most of that due to the insecurity of my situation. for the most part I am just pretty much painting and drawing what I want to do as still challenging myself to come up with something “unique”. I am a “Designated Master” with both the American Impressionist Society and the Oil Painters of America and feel that I have accomplished a lot, and quite proud of all of that,but have this feeling I want to do more, but as I can’t do all of the things that I had to do to accomplish that…I guess reading all that you have said and not quite being able to do much of it and probably talking for others that are handicapped or dealing with some serious issues..I felt compelled to say something…also understanding that you and others have to proclaim ones principles and integrity to a majority, some of us just aren’t able to do all that is required like we use too.
    I also am aware that at the same time…that I shouldn’t have to explain myself..and disappointed that I am. Maybe just need to blow off some steam. Hope you are having a great Summer…Best regards, Ned

    • Oh, Ned! I am so sorry you’ve been dealing with such severe health issues. That sounds awful and debilitating. Reading this makes me pine for the old days when galleries worked for artists on things beyond sales, like talking to the museums to support shows for their artists and putting work in front of prominent collectors. Doing all that an artist needs to do these days to stay in front of curators, collectors, and dealers is practically a full-time job. I would say, though, that you do have a solid track record from the past 60 years of work. I was just flipping through a PAPA catalogue and noted several of your marvelous paintings there. I’m not sure if there is anything I can do to support you, Ned, but I’d love to help if I can. Wishing you the best. Rose

  3. The best and most precious sculptures historically are small Maquet size because they can be enamored by the public and or concise.
    They are easy to show every drop of paint means more than the last.
    The paint brush becomes an extension of the soul.
    I suffer from extreme back pain. Stenosis and disc bulging on nerves.
    I do pilates to help.

  4. Dave Yust

    Hi Rose – – –
    One thing I would share on pricing is that any artworks that are the same size – I feel, should be priced the same.
    If one artwork is priced significantly more than the others, the same size – someone will invariably ask why? If the artist says – well, it is because I like it more than the others and feel that it is better -that immediately causes the potential buyer to think well ‘ I guess my choice is not so valid . . .’ It may indicate the artist herself/himself maybe thinks a bit less of the other artworks. The buyer then begins to question her or his own tastes and preference(s). It all at priced the same for same sized artworks – this will leave it completely up to the buyer to determine a favorite . . .

  5. Hi Rose, good info on pricing art work. I am 70 years old and retired and was working as an Illustrator, Designer and Art Director. I am about to move my website to another website host and will be adding pricing to the new site.
    I was thinking $10 a square inch. Please take a look and tell me your thoughts.

    Thanks Mike Zirbes

    • Hi, Mike-
      Sorry for the slow response. There are so many factors involved in pricing your art; I don’t feel comfortable offering advice on where to start your square inch pricing. Are you working with a gallery? They would be the best to ask.

  6. Jim Kieffer

    What about the pricing of works that have been lingering in dealer inventory for a few years? I have confronted this challenge a few times as a collector. I am not looking for a bargain, but I do feel the market has pretty much determined the price is a bit stale/too high if the piece has lingered for a few years.

    • This really depends on the piece and the artist. There are some works that linger because there is something wrong with the painting. But a work of art may also be languishing because it’s not been in front of the right audience or hasn’t been hung on a gallery wall in a long time. Dealers can be motivated to sell a painting that they have had around for a while, so you can always ask. When a collector asks me for a discount, I let them know I have to discuss any discount with the artist. Ultimately, discounts need to be the final decision of the artist, in my opinion. But too, as a collector, you probably need to consider a couple things. First, if you buy at a discount, you are effectively discounting that artist’s work across the board. And if you are buying something that has been hanging around for years, is there an issue with the work OR is it an outlier that will, down the road in the artist’s oeuvre, become a much sought after work? I would keep an open mind and have a conversation with the dealer about the artist and that particular work to uncover more information before you make any offer.

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