Is There a Market for Artists' "Seconds"?

06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What does an artist do with work that isn't quite up to his or her standards? Throw it out?

Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg both tried that, putting artworks they didn't like out with the trash, only to find them on sale in galleries a few years later. Some artists preemptively destroy works they don't like ("There's enough bad art in the world," Indianapolis, Indiana painter Charles Mundy said. "I want to spare the public bad art, especially if it's mine.") or perhaps they lend or give it away. The solution for most artists is just to keep their misfires in storage, which only postpones a decision.

Photographer Cindy Sherman decided to make a donation of one of hers. An untitled 1980 image from her "Rear Screen Projection" series that "didn't really work for her," according to her dealer Janelle Reiring of Manhattan's Metro Pictures gallery was turned into a limited edition print in 2000 - part of a portfolio of 10 images by 10 artists, selling for $10,000 apiece - for a fundraiser for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS. The image worked only a little better for a couple of the buyers of those portfolios, who individually put the Sherman photographs up at auction last year. The photograph at Skinner Auction House in Boston went for $1,896, under the $2,000-4,000 estimate, and $6,875, under the $7,000-10,000 estimate, at Sotheby's.

This isn't the first time that this particular image has come up at auction. In 2004, Christie's sold one for $3,346, within its $3,000-5,000 estimate. However, Jennifer Roth, senior vice-president of Sotheby's Fine Arts department, noted that "we are basing our estimates on the market for these artists, not on the fact that the works were donated."

Two other photographs from the same 2000 portfolio were up for sale at Skinner's, doing even worse. Laurie Simmon's untitled 1987 image of a box camera on top of a pair of human legs sold for $948 (below the $1,000-2,000 estimate), while Nan Goldin's 1985 "Cookie in the New York Inferno" ($2,000-4,000 estimate) went unsold. Perhaps, the poor results reflect the state of the economy or an insufficient effort on the part of Skinner's to alert potential bidders of the existence of these works (Jeffrey Peabody, director of New York's Matthew Marks Gallery, which represents Nan Goldin, said that he had not been sent information on this sale). A third possibility is that the work artists donate for charity benefits is of a lower grade than the pieces by which they established their reputations. "It happens a lot in charity auctions that artists contribute things that have been kicking around the studio," said Patrick Moore, who organized the benefit portfolio for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, although he claimed that the 10 photographs were of a higher quality than the norm.

Jeffrey Peabody himself suggested another possibility, that "potential buyers don't know what they're getting" when they buy a work that hadn't been sold but only donated previously. These works "can be misunderstood by people." Certainly, there are differences between these artists' gallery-exhibited work and those donated to charity benefits. All of the images in the 2000 portfolio were created in editions of 75 - resulting in 75 portfolios - which are far larger in number than is customary for these artists. Nan Goldin, for instance, usually produces limited editions of only 15 images, selling for between $12,000 and $20,000 apiece. At her last exhibition in late 2007 at Metro Pictures, Cindy Sherman's photographs sold for $200,000-250,000 in editions of five.

The Sotheby's sale also contained two small (12" x 11") paintings by Julian Schnabel that were created with 198 others of the same size in the mid-1990s by the artist for a fundraiser to benefit the Community Research Initiative on AIDS. The noncharacteristic artworks were exhibited at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1995, selling for $1,000 apiece. "I bought a number of them," Shafrazi said, "and I sold a few of them some years back for $7,000-8,000." The two paintings, sold as one lot, reached the same levels, fetching $17,500.

Whatever the reason, it would seem that the secondary market for artist-donated works of art is not comparable to the secondary or even primary market for the objects that they place in galleries. Celebrated names like Goldin, Schnabel, Sherman and Simmons can help raise money for a cause - the portfolio and other offerings raised almost $1 million for the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS - but the individual artworks may not have a great longevity in terms of value and interest.

Shafrazi complained that artists are being asked to donate to one worthy cause or another, which creates a certain resentment on the artists' part. "So they give a drawing or something they have lying around." The dealer praised Schnabel for his commitment to raising money for AIDS research by making 200 individual paintings, which took the artist several weeks to complete. "It's not fair to say that all works of art that go to benefits are second-tier," Shafrazi said, adding that "most people don't have the ability to buy a major work by Julian - even a drawing would cost $20,000-50,000. He helped a cause and let some people who would never be able to afford his work have one."