Why is the picture on the right worth
$50 million, or more, based on recent auction sales, when the picture
below could probably be bought for less than $1,000?
The picture above of Irises is by Van
Gogh of course, but the one of the left of Erythrina flowers is by Mary Butler
(click on image for larger picture).
Introduction and General Background.
Many people who visit this web site are
interested in knowing what the value of a painting that they own might be.
For example, what
price would they get for it if they chose to sell? This is not as
straightforward a subject as might appear at first sight, so these notes
are aimed at explaining the issues involved and how one might go about
obtaining a valuation.
First, as in all markets, there are
different prices depending on whether you are buying or selling. The
professional art dealer, who in practice operates like any retailer, has
to have a margin between the prices he is buying at and the prices he is
selling at, to enable him to stay in business. Bear in mind also that
art dealers often have to renovate or clean a picture, and frequently
reframe them, so as to make them attractive to the buying public.
Likewise, auction houses have to make a profit - the latter may be of
the order of 30% when you take into account the selling commission, the
buyer's "premium" and other miscellaneous charges. Also taxes may apply
to some of the charges.
There are also different markets for
the high volume "professionals" as against the low volume "amateurs". Auction prices tend to be lower
than retail prices (even discounting the buyer's premium which is often
ignored), simply because the auction markets are dominated by trade
buyers who have the time to spare to visit the auction views and attend
the auctions. They will use their own judgement about the provenance and
quality of the picture, and will ignore "condition" problems if they can be
Different prices also apply for other
purposes (in addition to the "buy" versus "sell" issue if you are
considering trading the picture). For example, if you wish to put a
value on a picture for insurance purposes, that value needs to be higher
because it needs to cover the cost of replacing the picture if it is
lost or stolen. Finding a replacement picture of similar quality will
often not be easy, and involve significant additional expense, so
insurance valuations need to be higher - for example they might be 10%
on top of what you have just paid for a picture from a dealer. But if
you are valuing a picture for "probate" purposes (ie. to determine the
value of a person's estate on death), you may want to take a more
For all the reasons above, valuations
can sometimes be halved, or doubled, depending on the purpose of the
valuation and from what direction you are coming.
Another common misconception is that
paintings can be valued like stock market shares, ie. that the market is
efficient and the prices are well known. This is rarely the case. Given
that you know who the artist is, this might give you an indication of
likely price range from looking at past sale data, but individual
paintings vary a great deal in size, quality, condition, subject appeal,
etc. In addition, the market is "illiquid" because works by particular
artists only come up for sale spasmodically, the prices are affected by
fashion, by how many people turn up at an auction on the day, and by
many other random factors. Note also that many of the sales are not even
recorded. So the data that is available tends to be "indicative" at
best. You may find that there are one or two avid collectors of
the artist - if they are interested in the picture and are aware it is
for sale, the price obtained may be high - if not, or there are no such
collectors, then the price will be low. But collectors come and go, and
are fickle in their allegiance.
Factors affecting painting prices.
Having said all of the above, let us
look at some general factors that affect picture prices, and at how we
might specifically value a painting. From here on we will generally
refer to "auction hammer" prices as these are one of the few sources of
specific data and are those usually quoted in reference works. In
general, the following are the factors that will affect the price:
1. The artist. Paintings by
artists who are household names will be priced in the stratosphere and
are really outside the scope of this web site. However, lesser artists
who have an established reputation and are well known to art collectors
may well be priced in the range £5,000 to £100,000. Artists who are
still "known" in the sense that they are historically recorded, but
whose work is considered of somewhat lower quality may be priced in the
range £1,000 to £10,000. If a work is signed, but by an unrecorded
artist, the value is rarely more than a couple of thousands of pounds
and more typically in the hundreds. Any unsigned or unattributed picture
is unlikely to be worth very much irrespective of the quality of the
picture (there are of course very few good quality pictures that are not
attributed to somebody, for reasons you can no doubt guess).
2. The size. Larger pictures are
generally more highly priced - double the size may be double the price.
However, if the picture is so large that it does not fit into a normal
sized house then selling it may be somewhat problematic unless it is the
kind attractive to museums or other institutions.
3. The aesthetic quality. Good
pictures by good artists are priced more highly than bad pictures by the
same artists. What makes a "good picture"? Refer to the
Appreciation page. Sketches where the picture has clearly been done quickly, or is
otherwise "unfinished", will also be very much lower in price.
4. Subject matter. Certain
subjects are likely to fetch lower prices than others. For example
religious themes are now out of fashion, and the Victorian penchant for
dead wild life is no longer popular. But pictures of cats and dogs tend to fetch higher prices than the quality otherwise justifies.
5. The condition. Pictures where
the paint is damaged or faded will fetch a lower price. Likewise if the
picture is dirty or badly framed, the price may be lower. But if any
faults are easily repairable then the impact may not be so severe.
6. The media. Oil paintings are
typically valued more highly than watercolours. This is primarily
because they take more time to paint, the paint lasts longer and
does not fade with age. For example very few watercolours are valued at
more than £50,000 and many watercolours by professional artists may
still be in the £500 to £1,000 bracket. Drawings and prints are the
least valued, however well known the artist.
A clear attribution. Pictures where there is no clear signature, or
where the attribution to the artist is doubtful, particularly if the
style is atypical of the artist, will achieve a lower price. This is
particularly the case with higher priced pictures where undoubted
authenticity is an essential. Note that there are reference books that
list common artist's signatures and monograms (eg. by Caplan and Creps),
or look at the ArtPrice site mentioned below for online information.
8. Where the picture is located.
If a picture is sold in some remote location such as in parts of
Cornwall or Wales in the UK, you are likely to get a lower price than if
you sold at the major London auction houses. Reason: simply transporting
the picture costs money, so auction prices tend to be slightly lower in
provincial auction houses. Similarly provincial art dealers may buy and
sell for less because they have lower overheads than central London
9. Recent publicity. Any recent
publicity concerning the artist will help prices. The classic example of
this is when the artist has just died, when he may be the subject of
press coverage and retrospective exhibitions.
10. Rarity. Particularly where
there are collectors of an artist, the fewer examples that come onto the
market, then the higher the price they tend to fetch. Similarly if the
subject matter is particularly unusual or the painting is from a
particularly interesting stage in the artist's career, this may raise
the price. But bear in mind that if the artist's work is so sparse as to
be barely known, then it can languish unappreciated and uncollected.
11. The Age. Older paintings, at
least those more than 100 years old, may be worth more simply because of
their antiquity and rarity. However the older a picture is, the more
it's condition tends to worsen, particularly with watercolours. Also picture
styles and artists can go out of fashion, especially in the 50 years
after the artists death. So for example, until recently many Victorian
genre paintings were worth very little. Age is therefore not a
consistent predictor of value.
Obtaining the typical price of an
Clearly who the artist is has a big
impact on the price of a painting. There are several sources of data on
what prices pictures by specific artists have sold at in the past
(typically auction hammer prices). There are a number of published books
and internet web sites that give such data, and magazines that list
recent sales. Also services can inform you when pictures by particular
artists are coming up for auction. We have not listed these sources here
because they tend to come and go fairly rapidly so this web site would
soon become out of date.
Getting an independent valuation.
The above information sources provide a
way to get a rough idea of the likely range of values of a picture,
assuming you also take into account the "factors" listed previously.
However, they are not likely to be anywhere near as good as a
professional valuation by someone who regularly deals with the artists
work (and those of similar artists). Also of course, for legal or other
reasons, you sometimes need an independent written valuation. Such
valuations can be obtained from many picture dealers or auction houses.
How do you select the best ones? For picture dealers, try to select ones
who deal commonly with the same kind of pictures, ie. with the
artist's work or with similarly priced works. Try searching the internet
for dealers who already have the artist's work in stock.
Note that asking a dealer for a
valuation is not necessarily the same as asking what they would offer to
buy the picture. There are also independent valuers who are often more
capable of valuing a range of items in addition to paintings.
For auction houses again select those
that are most appropriate. For example if your picture is of the best
quality by a well known artist, contact one of the major London auction
houses. For lower price items,
and more convenience, a more local auction house may be more
Getting some advice from Panvertu
We regularly get asked for some advice
on picture valuations and other associated information. We may be able
to answer simple queries but we do not have the resources to provide
valuations or do research into particular artists. Please do not ask us
to do this or send us digital photographs of paintings unless we have
invited you to do so. Any advice we may give should not be relied on for any purpose and
you should consult a qualified and respected authority in the field for
a specific valuation. If you wish to contact Panvertu then use the
Contact tab above.
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The information supplied above is
believed to be correct at the date of writing (21 Jan 2003).
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