Putting a Price on (Your) Art Takes Some Thought

Deciding what price to put on artwork is one of the most difficult problems for lesser-known or "emerging" artists, since there is no obvious point of reference. (Artists who have had a history of sales, on the other hand, will have a better idea of prices that are more suitable for particular buyers.) The best way to establish one's market value -- the price a collector is likely to pay -- is by going to art fairs, art galleries and other places where artworks of comparable size, imagery and quality by artists of similar standing in the art world are sold. Those prices should offer some guidelines to what an artist may charge for his or her works. One should never ask prospective buyers what they would pay for art; that is the artist's decision. One may have some flexibility in this, perhaps offering a discount of, say, 10 percent for collectors who like to negotiate, but the pricing decision should never be taken out of the artists' hands.

Discounts can be tricky, since there is great potential for situations to get out of hand: If an artist offers a discount to one collector, word may get around and every potential buyer may not only ask for but demand the same or better discount; if an artist negotiates a discount with a collector in front of other people but the sale never takes place, the artist may look a little foolish and even desperate. Artists should prepare themselves for these conversations with would-be buyers, steeling themselves to say (for example) that the stated price is the actual price. If a collector says that So-and-So Artist, whose work is similar to yours, lowered her price so why won't you, artists will need to remember that not all art is interchangeable and that those buyers who want a work badly enough will pay the asking price. An artist might say to a discount-seeking collector, "I'm not going to lower the price, but I will throw in a brochure and a personal invitation to my next exhibit." (One may be tempted to say something catty, such as "If saving money is your goal, she probably is your kind of artist," but that could embarrass and offend the would-be buyer and poison relations with another artist.)

It is often the case that an artist looks to price items in such a way as to achieve a certain per hour wage, and some attempt to develop a complicated equation that includes cost of materials, rent, utilities and labor. Such an equation, and a final price for a given object, may exist somewhere, but it does not (and cannot) reflect the market, especially for someone who is new to the field. One artist's painting should not be priced twice as high as everyone else's, simply because either that artist's rent is high or he or she doesn't want to feel like a slave. The reasonable price needs to be established first, and all other related expenses need to be adjusted accordingly -- if one's rent is too high, find a less expensive studio, for instance. If an artist cannot bear to part with a particular work for a low price, he or she shouldn't sell it.

Of course, prices for works will vary greatly from a small town to a major city. An artist whose market is (or is more likely to be) smaller town collectors would want to set prices at the level of those buyers. Similarly, for those artists whose goal is to be represented in the larger urban center, those city's prices should determine value. The prices an artist sets should be uniform -- dealers in cities won't want to have the same works sold more cheaply somewhere else. This is known as regional pricing. Artists should feel confident that collectors everywhere will pay what something is worth, if they want it enough.

When a work is sold directly by the artist to a collector, the artist should create a copy of a bill of sale, each listing the buyer's name, address and telephone number, the title of the artwork, its dimensions, media and sale price. The copy of the bill of sale should go to the buyer, the other to stay with the artist. The artist's sales record is important for tax preparation, and information about the collector will be useful to have when sending out announcements of upcoming exhibitions.

Raising prices becomes justified as one's market grows, and a heightened demand for a fixed supply itself gives the sought-after works increased value. Consider the case of Scott Fraser, for example, a painter in Longmont, Colorado. His paintings were first shown in an art gallery in Denver and sold for $300 in the early 1980s. Some sales took place and, the following year, his prices went up to $900. The value of his work continued to rise, to $1,500 and beyond; at present, an average oil painting sells for $7,000, with some works fetching as much as $20,000.

"Each time you make a jump in pricing, you have to get a new set of buyers," he said. "I've lost some of the people who bought my work in the early years, because they can no longer afford me. Every time you break the couple of thousand dollars barriers with your prices, you have to look to get new collectors."

For Fraser, the plan for attracting new buyers involves keeping in touch with current collectors by letter ("I write to them, telling them what I'm working on, when and where I'm having a show") and also writing to potential buyers when "a lead" is mentioned to him, either by a friend, associate or dealer at one of his galleries. That letter usually includes a biography, slides of his paintings and a statement about his artistic purpose, as well as some mention of the person known in common (who gave Fraser the "lead" in the first place).

For other artists, raising prices may require finding another gallery or dealer, where opportunities for having works purchased by collectors who will pay more or lend enhanced prestige to the work are greater. Some dealers may only be able to work with emerging artists and not have the contacts to help an artist who is selling work steadily. Changing galleries may be a difficult decision for an artist who got his or her first big break with a particular dealer, and it can be doubly hard in the art world because the relationships between artists and dealers are often on a personal, friendship level.

The issue can be discussed with other artists, some of whom may have experienced the same situation or might facilitate an introduction to their own dealers, or by directly making contact in one form or another with a dealer whose gallery and contacts better reflect the artist's current situation. Networking, passing on information and using the "favor pool" are the most common ways for artists to advance their careers.

"You have to be discreet when you're looking for a new dealer," painter Nancy Hagin said. "Dealers certainly don't like it if you bad mouth them but, of course, why are you shifting and looking around if you aren't unhappy?"

Hagin noted that she "sniffed around... put out the word that I was looking for other representation... talked to people who knew me and knew which dealers were looking for what" and, finally, found the right match. She had been represented since 1973 by New York City art dealer Terry Dintenfass and found, "I got a fair number of sales, but I didn't get a lot of shows and the prices were low."

She began sending out announcements for her shows at Dintenfass to the director of New York City's Fischbach Gallery in the late 1970s, later adding a note "that said, in essence, I was restless and had a body of work ready to go. Would he be interested in talking?" The Fischbach Gallery, as it turned out, was happy to represent her work. At the outset, she requested a show every two years, higher prices for her work and faster payment, all of which she obtained.

"Fischbach doubled my prices immediately" -- from $2,400 for a 4'x5' picture to $5,000 and up -- "and began paying me monthly installments instead of in one lump sum, which is a lot better for me," Hagin stated.