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  • Art Values - How to Value Art
    How Much is My Art Worth?

    Q: I need to know how much my art is worth. It's supposed to be valuable according the gallery I bought it from, but I'm having lots of trouble selling it for anywhere near that price. Here's what's happened so far...

    I bought a limited edition print at a gallery for $3500 in 2003. At the time, the gallery told me that it had a retail value of $5600. I just called the gallery, they gave me an updated valuation for $7300, and now I want to sell it. First, I offered it to the gallery, but they told me that they have several in stock and don't need any more at the moment. I took out several classified ads in newspapers and on one art resale website, but nobody responded. I also tried to sell it at an online auction, but the high bid was only $900. What do you recommend? I want $5000 for it.

    A: You're not going to get $5000; you're not going to get anywhere close. If it's any consolation, you're also not the only one who's finding out the hard way that you can't sell your art for what you thought you could-- in spite of the values the gallery gave (and continues to give) you. Unfortunately, many people who buy art don't understand how the art business works, and many dealers who sell art, especially those who operate more commercial galleries like you find at pricey malls, high-end shopping districts, and tourist destinations, are not interested in explaining it to them. So if you want to know what your art is really worth, get it appraised here. Speaking of really, here's how art values really work in the real world...

    Briefly, the art market is made up of two distinct segments, retail and secondary. The retail market consists of art sold by dealers, galleries, and other art business professionals at retail prices out of retail venues. The secondary market consists of all art that is being resold by parties other than the original retail dealers at places other than galleries including auctions, estate sales, newspaper or online classified ads, flea markets, art wholesalers, and so on. Secondary market prices are generally considered wholesale and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, are less than retail prices, and often way less.

    People who own art also need to understand how appraisals work (aka how much this gallery is telling you your art is worth). Appraising is a science, not an exact one, but one based on concrete observations of how much art has sold for how much money in the past. Without going into detail, an appraised value is not what someone "thinks" art is worth or how much you see it priced at retail galleries before it sells, and it's not what someone casually tells you its value is. A legitimate appraised value is based TOTALLY on what the art has already sold for or typically sells for not only at top retail galleries, but everywhere-- and it's supported with concrete price and dollar value data from whatever sales have already taken place. To repeat: An appraised value is not how much someone wants to sell art for or how much they think it's worth or how much it's priced in an expensive gallery; it's how much the art actually sells for.

    If you want art appraised because you want to sell it, you have to tell the appraiser that. The appraiser knows that you're not a gallery, that you can't expect to get a retail price for the art, and will give you a wholesale value based on current secondary market selling prices. In other words, the appraiser will not give you a value equal to what the art is priced for as it hangs unsold on an expensive art gallery wall, but instead, a value based on what your print (or comparable prints) currently sell for outside of retail settings.

    The best way to get an accurate value for purposes of selling your art is to use a neutral appraiser with no conflict of interest in either the values of your art or any other art by the artist. You used the gallery that sold you your print, and they're about as far from a neutral party as you can get. They want people to believe that the art they sell is worth as much as possible; so naturally, they're going to "appraise" it as high as possible-- and often without any justification for doing so other than that's how much they sell it for. And that's not an appraisal; it's how much they sell it for.

    The so-called "appraisal" they gave you is not really an appraisal at all, but rather the retail asking price of the print at their gallery. It has no relevance to you, a private party, or what you can reasonably expect to sell your print for in a private sale on the secondary market. Furthermore, it may not even have relevance to what the gallery sells the print for. If a customer offers $5000 for that $7300 print, for example, and the gallery takes it, then what does that make the print worth? After all, they sold you yours for $3500 when it was supposedly retailing for $5600.

    The bottom line in your case is that you can only expect to sell your print for between $800 and $1000, or just about as much as the high bid at the online auction. It currently sells at other auctions in that range. Wholesale dealers list it somewhat higher, in the $1200-$1800 range, but keep in mind that they're dealers and you're not. Bottom line: If you don't need the money, keep the print; if you need the money and have to sell, take the $900 and be done with it.

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