Pricing your art is different from making art; it’s something you do with your art after it’s made, when it’s ready to leave your studio and get sold either by you personally or through a gallery, at an art fair, online, at open studios, through an agent or representative, wherever. Making art is about the individual personal creative process, experiences that come from within; pricing art for sale is about what’s happening on the outside, in the real world where things are bought and sold for money, and where market forces dictate in large part how much those things are worth.
The better you understand how the art market works and where your art fits into the big picture of all the art by all the artists that’s for sale at all the places where art is being sold, the better prepared you are to price and sell your art. Just like any other product, art is priced according to certain criteria– art criteria– and these criteria have more to do with what’s going on in the marketplace than they do with you as an artist. They’re about how people in the art world– people like dealers, galleries, agents, publishers, auction houses, appraisers and experienced collectors– put dollar values on art. You have an idea of what your art is worth, the market has an idea of what your art is worth, and somehow the two of you have to get together on a price structure that makes sense.
Let’s take a non-art example of how market forces dictate prices. Suppose you see a 2001 used Toyota Corolla with 180,000 miles on it advertised for sale and priced at $45,000. The owner is probably not going to sell that car. In order to sell a used Toyota Corolla with lots of miles on it, you have to price it according to certain criteria, used car criteria. In the same way, in order to sell art, you have to price it according to art criteria. Learning what these art criteria are and understanding how they apply to you is essential to pricing your art successfully.
Art prices are not pulled out of thin air. When you price your art, you must be able to show that your prices make sense, that they’re fair and justified with respect to certain art criteria such as the depth of your resume, your previous sales history and the particulars of the market where you sell. People who know something about art and who are interested in either buying, selling or representing your work are going to figure out one way or another, not necessarily by asking you, whether your art is worth what you’re selling it for. In order to sell, you have to demonstrate and convince them that your prices are fair and reasonable. If you can’t do this, you’ll have a hard time selling art.
So how do you start? If you don’t have a consistent history of selling your art in a particular price range or in a particular market or your sales are erratic or you’re making a change or you’re just plain not sure how much to charge for whatever reason, a good first step is to use techniques similar to those that real estate agents use to price houses. The selling price of a house that’s just coming onto the market is based on what are called “comparables” or “comps” or prices that similar houses in the same neighborhood sell for– real estate criteria.
For example, let’s take a nice big mansion and plop it down the good part of Beverly Hills. It’ll be worth maybe five, maybe ten, maybe forty million bucks. Now, let’s plop it onto the plains of North Dakota. It’ll be worth maybe $500,000, maybe $1,000,000 or maybe a little more… max. Same mansion; different neighborhood; different criteria. Get it?
You see, you can’t price your art in a vacuum; you have to consider its “neighborhood,” its context, the “art criteria” that connect it to the rest of the art world. You’ll find that no matter what market you sell in, whether local, regional, national or international, that for the most part, every type of art by every type of artist has its own price structure, and that includes yours. “But my art is unique. You can’t price art like that.” You may be thinking this, and you’re right, your art is unique, but so is every house in any given neighborhood. No matter how unique your art is, it’s also similar in certain ways to art by other artists– just like one house is similar to another (they both have bedrooms, bathrooms, square footage, roofs, and so on).
Here are some of the ways your art may be similar to other art– it may be similar in size, shape, medium, weight, subject matter, colors, the time it takes you to make it, when it was made, how long you’ve been making that type of art, how many you’ve made, what type of art it is (abstract, representational, conceptual, etc.), who your audience is, and so on. Your job is to explore your market, keep an open mind, find that similar art, find the artists who make it, focus on those who have similar experience and qualifications to yours, and see what they charge for it and why.
For those of you who have little or no sales experience, who haven’t sold much art, a good starting point for you is to price your work based on time, labor, and cost of materials. Pay yourself a reasonable hourly wage, add the cost of materials and make that your asking price. For example, if materials cost $50, you take 20 hours to make the art, and you pay yourself $20 an hour to make it, then you price the art at $450 ($20 X 20 hours + $50 cost of materials). Don’t forget the comparables, though. If you use this formula and your art turns out to be more expensive than what other artists in your area charge for similar art, you may have to rethink your pricing, pay yourself a little less per hour perhaps.
So in summary, here are the basic art pricing fundamentals:
Step 1: Define your market. Where do you sell your art? Do you sell locally, regionally, nationally or internationally? The art, artists and prices in your market are the ones you should pay the most attention to.
Step 2: Define your type of art. What kind of art do you make? What are its physical characteristics? In what ways is it similar to other art? How do you categorize it? If you paint abstracts, for example, what kind of abstracts, how would you describe them? This is the type of art that you want to generally focus on for comparison purposes.
Step 3: Determine which artists make art similar to yours either by researching online or visiting galleries, open studios or other venues and seeing their work in person. Pay particular attention to those artists who also have career accomplishments similar to yours, who’ve been making art about as long as you have, showing about as long as you have, selling about as long as you have and so on.
Step 4: See how much these similar artists charge for their art. Their prices will be good initial estimates of the prices you should charge for your art.
Pricing by comparison works in the great majority of cases, but you can get even more accurate with your pricing to really make sure that your prices make sense, AND that they can be justified to anyone who asks. In case you’re thinking this is all nonsense, I appraise art. Sometimes, I have to justify or defend my appraisals to entities like the IRS, insurance companies, estate executors, and the legal system– and sometimes those appraisals and justifications are subject to penalty of law. My point is that people place dollar values on art all the time, that proven methods and techniques exist for doing so. I’m showing you some of those techniques here, ones that you can use to value your art. So let’s get pricing. The following factors aren’t in any particular order, and may or may not apply to you. You decide what works best.
To begin with, be objective about your art and your experience. At every step along the way, in order for your prices to make sense, you have to fairly, honestly and objectively evaluate how your art measures up to other art that’s out there. In order to make valid comparisons, you need a good ballpark idea how the quality of your art and the extent of your accomplishments stack up to those of other artists, particularly the ones who you’ll be comparing yourself to. In other words, you can’t pad your resume. If you’ve been making art for three years, for example, don’t compare yourself to artists who’ve been making it for twenty. This is not necessarily easy and it’s not necessarily pleasant, but it’s essential if you want to make it as an artist.
The key word here is “objective.” Don’t confuse your own personal subjective opinion of your art, or what you think the art world should be like, or how you think it should respond to your art, with how things actually are. If you find yourself saying stuff like “People don’t understand my work” or “People don’t appreciate me” or “I’m just as good as Vincent Picasso even though he’s famous and I’m not” or “Sooner or later I’ll find the perfect dealer or collector or whatever and live happily ever after,” you may be making some errors in judgment. If this is happening, invite a few people to look at your art and tell you what they think– preferably people who know something about art, not your best friends, not your biggest fans, not necessarily Simon Cowell, but people who’ll be direct. Encourage them to be truthful because that’s what you need. And don’t get defensive; doing this will help you. When you’re objective about your art, you maximize your chances of succeeding as an artist.
If it’s any consolation, and I know you want your art to sell for as much money as possible, your art is still the same art, it’s still just as good, you’re still the same artist and you’re still just as good, no matter how you price it. Don’t use dollar values to validate yourself as an artist; use them to sell your art. Just because you price something at $20,000 does not mean it’s worth $20,000 or that you stand a ghost of a chance of selling it. Nothing is worth anything until it actually sells, which means the following– that someone places their money in the palm of your hand and accepts your art in exchange.
While we’re on the topic of expensive art and objectivity, here’s a bit more about comparing yourself to other artists. If you think you’re as good as Damien Hirst, for example, or some other famous artist, and I’ve met artists who do, and you may well be, that does not mean you price like those artists. Your art may indeed by as good as that of a well-known or even famous artist who sells for lots of money, but many other factors go into pricing, and must also be considered AND compare favorably between the two of you before your selling prices can come anywhere close to theirs– not the least of which are your resumes. If they’re dead and you’re alive, if they’ve had a one-person show at the Tate and you’ve had a one-person show at Biff’s Soup & Sandwich, if your qualifications and credentials don’t approximate their qualifications, if their resume is 10 books long and yours is half a page, don’t make comparisons between their prices and yours. If this was allowed in the art market rulebook, then any artist could sell any work of art for any amount of money at any time based solely on how they believe their art compares to the art of any other artist, without taking any additional factors into consideration. And we all know that doesn’t happen.
This next point I already made, but because it’s so important I’m going to make it again this time from a different angle. Don’t think that your art is so unique that you can price it without regard to what’s happening elsewhere in your art community or in the art world in general. All art is unique. Every artist is unique. Uniqueness, however, is not and never will be the sole criteria for pricing art. But wait. Let’s say, for the sake of argument that your art is unique and that it’s unlike any object, art or otherwise, ever created in any manner since the beginning of time.
Now let’s do a quick switch and consider that art from the perspective of informed experienced dealers, curators, critics or collectors. These people almost always compare art from artist to artist and from gallery to gallery before they decide what to buy, sell, collect, write about, exhibit or represent, no matter what kind of art they’re looking at or how unique it is. They rarely, if ever, find themselves with only one choice. Can you imagine any knowledgeable art person looking at an artist’s art and saying things like, “I have never seen anything like this! I must have it. I don’t care how much it costs. I don’t care who you are. Give me everything. This is unbelievable.” Not going to happen. Even if your art is notably unique, people who know art will find some way to compare it, categorize it and relate it to other art by other artists in order to assess its significance, its dollar value, and ultimately its institutional or marketplace viability. You have to do the same.
By the way, expensively priced originals are sometimes used to sell more reasonably price originals or limited edition prints of originals. Certain galleries or artists don’t care whether they sell their most expensive works, and may not even expect to; they’re perfectly happy to sell the more reasonably priced originals or the prints. “This major original costs $50,000,” they tell you. “But you can also have this similar but smaller original for $5000 or the signed limited edition print for only $800.” Pricing certain originals high is a marketing technique designed to make lower priced originals and prints look more attractive to buyers, almost like they’re bargains. This coattail effect does work, so don’t automatically assume that the highest priced art always sells because oftentimes it doesn’t.
Related to evaluating an artist’s range of selling prices is the fact that you want to price your art according to what other art SELLS for, not what it’s OFFERED for. In other words, if it’s priced $8000, but it sells for $5000, price closer to $5000 than $8000. Sometimes you see galleries where retail value is one thing, but the price they’re really willing to sell it for is substantially lower. This is another technique that is designed to make buyers feel like they’re getting bargains, and it may work for galleries, but it doesn’t necessarily work for artists. You don’t want to get get known for substantially lowering your prices because buyers will catch on, wait you out, and refuse to buy until sale time rolls around. Negotiating a lower price here and there on a case-by-case basis is fine, but avoid wheeler-dealer sales techniques. Getting a reputation as a huckster may compromise the integrity of your art.
The moral of the story is to price on the low side of your market, especially if you’re less established, less experienced or trying to gain a foothold in a new or more competitive realm. Doing this increases your chances of making sales. You see, when someone buys a piece of art from you, that’s one less piece that they’re going to buy from other artists. You want to maximize the number of pieces that people buy from you. That’s how you make a living as an artist.
So no matter how you set your prices, be competitive. As distasteful and capitalistic as this may sound, you’re in competition with other artists, not in the sense that you’re having paint-offs or sculpt-offs with the artists down the hall or across town, but rather you’re favorably positioning yourself for the people who see your art, the prospective buyers, the ones who are doing the “judging,” the ones awarding the “purchase prizes”– the money you need in order to survive as an artist. This is why I keep hammering away about comparing. The people who buy art do it; you should too.
If you already have or are about to get gallery representation, all of this changes as the two of you will have to decide how to reprice your work for a retail setting, whether you will be allowed to sell direct from your studio, what the arrangements for direct sales will be (if allowed), and so on. But for now, assuming you are an artist without representation, keeping your prices in the realm of wholesale increases your chances of making sales.
By the way, sometimes a gallery marks up more than twice what the artist ends up getting. These tend to be high profile galleries with high overhead. It’s up to you how much you’ll allow a gallery to take, but the less experienced you are, the more seriously you should consider any gallery’s offer to show your art even though they may have high mark-ups, assuming they agree to pay your prices, assuming they’re reputable, assuming they don’t rope you into long term contracts. You see, if a gallery only pays you $1000 for your art, but they sell it for $4000, buyers perceive your art as being worth $4000, not $1000, and that’s good for you in the long run. In a sense, you’re paying the gallery to promote you, to increase your name recognition and the value of your art in the eyes of the public, and a gallery that does this well deserves the commissions they charge.
Suppose you hook up with a gallery like this. You don’t have to stick with a lopsided split forever– I sure wouldn’t– but if it works and they’re selling your art, the two of you may want to keep the relationship going. When it’s time for you to have a new show, renegotiate the commission. If you can’t, you may have to leave, but if you decide to leave, make sure you have other sales options to fall back on. Don’t cut your life support.
So to repeat, especially when you’re starting out, don’t demand too much. In general, anytime anyone proposes to sell your art for more than it’s ever sold for before, even though they may want a lot in return, assuming they’re reputable, assuming a reasonable contract, think about it. The extra money they may make in the short term will be nothing compared to the extra money you stand to make in the long term by having someone set new high selling prices for your art. Those new high prices will be good for the rest of your life, and that’s a long time. The way the art world works, by the way, is that more famous you get and the higher your prices become, the more control you progressively gain over your artistic destiny. Some well known artists actually dictate their commission arrangements to galleries that want to show them, rather than the other way around.
Here’s how this applies to art. Supposing I’m consulting with an artist, as I am on many occasions, and we’re going over that artist’s selling prices. We’re looking at a series of paintings, similar in size, subject matter, and other particulars. They’re all priced in the $1000-$2000 range except one which they’ve priced at $10,000. So I ask, “Why is this one so expensive?” I get answers like, “It means a lot to me” or “I don’t really want to sell it” or “I really love it” or “Just look at it.” “I am looking at it,” I say. “That’s why I’m asking.”
This artist is equating dollar value with personal feelings like how emotionally attached he is to that painting or what he went through when he painted it. And that’s just fine; he has every right to feel strongly about that art, as do you about your art. All artists feel this way, but you can’t base selling prices on feelings. Feelings are intangibles, and intangibles don’t translate well into dollars and cents. “Why is this painting $10,000?” the artist answers. “I’ll tell you why– because not only do you get the painting, but you also get a pound of love and twelve ounces of inspiration.” See what I mean? Doesn’t work.
Pricing by how you feel looks arbitrary to outsiders; they see isolated high or low prices, can’t figure them out, and, most importantly, they rarely ask why. They don’t ask because they feel insecure around art or artists, they don’t want to insult you, they don’t want to look stupid, and so on. Even though your prices make perfect sense to you on a personal level, they may make little or no sense to others, and when that happens, they tend to shy away from your art.
The good news is that solving emotional price problems is easy. All you have to do with art that means the most to you, the stuff you won’t sell unless someone really pays you for it, is keep it. Don’t show it in public. If you really want to show it, put NFS on it– not for sale– or “Collection of the Artist.” Don’t price it. Know that if you do show it, though, certain people will come up to you and say things like “Oh– that’s my favorite. It’s the best one. It’s not for sale? I would have bought it.” But guess what? If it were for sale, they wouldn’t have bought it. They just want to act important. Regardless of who may be playing what kind of games, you may well have lost a sale by making someone jealous of what they cannot have.
The art you love the most, love it in the privacy of your own home. Any insights, enlightenments, experiences, transcendences, whatever you go through when you make that art should be for you only, or for your journal, or maybe for you and your innermost circle of friends. Don’t tease strangers by pricing it high and dangling it in front of their faces; they confuse easily when you go all intangible on them, and they won’t understand. People are used to buying stuff with simple price structures like food, clothes, laundry detergent and personal electronics. They’re uncomfortable enough around art already without you having to lay inscrutable valuation explanations on them. When selling time comes, be consistent, be straightforward and be able to clearly and concisely explain any one selling price in terms of all your others. Consistency in pricing is a cornerstone of successful selling.
Inconsistent pricing works both ways, by the way. The opposite of pricing some art really high is pricing other art really low, for example, because you don’t like it, it’s the old stuff you don’t make anymore, you’re tired of looking at, you’ve run out of space, it reminds you of someone you don’t want to be reminded of, you’re cleansing your environment, whatever. Experienced buyers who bargain hunt for art love it when artists underprice art based on emotions rather than on objective market factors. If you’re planning on having an art-I-don’t-like-anymore sale, get an informed outside opinion first to make sure you don’t sell yourself short.
* If you’re in a group show, submit art that’s in the same price range as the rest of the art in the show. You don’t want to enter the most expensive piece; you don’t want people’s first impression of your art to be sticker shock. You want your art to stand out for art reasons, not money reasons. If you’re not sure what the show’s price range is, ask the organizers before you submit.
* For those of you with websites, don’t show art that’s already sold. Showing sold art doesn’t help you make sales. Some artists think that if visitors see how much is selling, they’ll want to join the crowd and get one too, before it’s too late, before they’re all gone. But exactly the opposite happens. People see a bunch of sold art and think, “All the best ones are gone; nothing’s left but the bones. I don’t want sloppy fifteenths.” People don’t want to see what they missed, what they can’t have. They want to see computer screens full of studio-fresh art where they get first pick, and everybody else can fight over the crumbs. Remove sold art and replace it with new art; if you don’t have new art, make some.
* If asked, be willing to talk about what you’ve sold, how much you’ve sold, who you’ve sold it to, where you’ve sold it, or how much you’ve sold it for. Better yet, have a section of your website titled “Past Works” or “Select Past Works” where you show your best sold works like ones that are in significant private, corporate or institutional collections, ones that have won awards, ones that have been written about, ones that have been illustrated on websites or publications, etc. You can also include many of these accomplishments in your resume. Providing information about your sales history serves to support your asking prices and makes people feel better about buying your art. Flaunt your past sales; don’t ignore them.
Pricing your art also protects you from having to field unanticipated questions, especially if you’re not comfortable talking about money. Suppose, for example, someone asks a price and you’re not sure what to charge, so you start fumbling around. “Oh… that one,” you say. “You like that one? Hmmm. Let me see, I haven’t thought about selling that one before… I really like it though; it’s one of my favorites. I would have thought you’d like this one.” And on and on you go, looking bumbling and unprepared as the asker makes a beeline for the door. Also, people don’t like to ask prices and then find out they can’t afford the art. This is embarrassing. Let people see your prices first, think them over, decide whether they like your $1500 sculpture $1500 worth, decide whether they can afford it, and when they’re ready, then they’ll ask questions.
Be able to justify all price increases with facts. Don’t raise prices arbitrarily based on how you feel, on what another artist does or because you think your prices have been the same long enough. Always have a good reason. And be careful not to alienate your collector base by getting too expensive to fast; always remember those faithful fans who’ve been buying your art and supporting you the longest. Don’t price them out of your market.
People want evidence; they want to feel confident about spending however much money they’re about to spend. They want to understand what they’re getting in exchange, and feel like they have some degree of control over the situation. This is especially true for buyers on the fence who don’t know your work that well or who haven’t bought a lot of art and are just starting out. So support your prices with facts. People care about how they spend their money– they want to feel like they’re spending it wisely. So show them that they’re doing the right thing, that your art is worth what you’re selling it for, that other people buy it, and that its OK for them to buy it too.