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  • How to Price Individual Works of Art:

    Making Distinctions Between

    One Piece of Art and the Next




    Related article: The Basics of Art Pricing >>

    Being clear and consistent when pricing your art gives you credibility as an artist. Just as consumers expect clear consistent pricing when shopping for milk at the grocery story or for a new refrigerator at Fred's Appliance Palace, they also expect clarity when shopping for art. And the more experienced the buyer or collector, the more they expect it. Price structures that are difficult to understand or explain or are problematic in other ways can really cramp your style when it comes to attracting new buyers or making more sales.

    A clear consistent price structure means every work of art you create is assigned a dollar value that relates to the dollar values of all your other art. In other words, you're pricing all art according to the same basic principles, determined by you and/or those who know your art best, so the price of any individual work of art makes sense within the context of the rest. Pricing rules and guidelines are based on unique characteristics of your art in combination with what's happening in the overall art market. If you have little or no experience selling and/or pricing your art, please read Quantifying Creativity - How Any Artist Can Price Their Art For Sale before continuing.

    A main goal of sensible art pricing is for similar works of art to have similar selling prices. You the artist decide what those similarities are based on and which criteria you choose. Those criteria become the measures by which you assess and ultimately determine prices for all of your art. Remember at each stage in your process, these criteria should be explainable and understandable to anyone with questions about your art, especially potential buyers.

    A good first step in determining which criteria to price by is to select one or more works of art that you consider typical of your current output and that display a similar range of your skills. These would be pieces you consider to be good solid examples of your art, and neither outstanding nor inferior in any way. If you work in more than one medium or style, do the same for them and select at least several pieces that are representative of each.

    Describe or itemize these works in reasonable detail in terms of their basic physical characteristics as well as in terms of stylistic variables unique to your art. Basic physical characteristics include size, subject matter, color, complexity, weight, detail, cost of materials, time necessary to create and so on. Stylistic variables unique to your art might include the number of figures in a composition, theme, texture, use of a particular palette, direction of the brush strokes, date produced, or degree of abstraction, for example.

    Avoid using subjective criteria to describe, measure or price your art such as what it means to you, what its message is, how it makes you feel, how attached you are to it and so on. Subjective impressions may be important from your own personal psychological, intellectual or emotional feelings, but not necessarily in terms of pricing as they can vary widely from piece to piece, even though those pieces might look basically the same to the average viewer. No one, however, can dispute a work of art's size or subject matter. If over time you find audiences respond similarly to art with certain subjective content, feelings or messages, you may eventually be able to quantify that content as price points, but for the time being, it's best to leave intangible considerations out of the process.

    Once you've completed the physical descriptions of your art, your next task is to set a base price for those pieces you've decided are good solid examples of your work. A good analogy to this concept of a base price in the art world would be a base price in the car world, or the price of a standard well-equipped car with no extras, and not stripped down (this may sound a bit crude, but it happens to be how the overwhelming majority of art gets priced). A standard well-equipped car with no extras costs a certain dollar amount; models with "extras" cost more; stripped down models cost less. How much more or less depends on the amount and significance of the extras.

    Artists with gallery experience and consistent sales histories already know the range of base prices that typical good quality works of their art sell for. If you don't have a regular track record of sales, however, your base price range should be similar to prices other artists in your area with similar experience, resumes and sales records charge for good quality works of their art. Keep in mind that even though your art is unique, experienced art people like dealers, seasoned collectors, consultants and agents make price comparisons from artist to artist all the time. Being able to evaluate your art from a detached standpoint by comparing it to that of other artists in your area is necessary in order for your price structure to make sense in the overall marketplace-- and in order for buyers who collect art by different artists to understand.

    Once you've set your base price, use it as the norm to price the rest of your art in relation to that base, in terms of "extras" or lack thereof. Extras, according to your descriptive criteria, are those characteristics that make certain works of your art more significant or exceptional than others. If, for example, your typical work of art measures 20 by 30 inches and your base-price is $1000, you might price a larger one measuring 40 by 50 inches at $1800 to $2500. Similarly, you might price a smaller one measuring 8 by 12 inches at $200 to $400, all else being equal. "Extras" that generally translate into price increases beyond your base dollar amounts (or what you normally charge) would be more complicated compositions, larger sizes, more intricate detail, greater degrees of technical difficulty, greater production times, more expensive materials, and so on. Regardless of what they are, make sure you can explain them to anyone who might ask why one artwork is more expensive than the next.

    If certain works of art hold special meaning or for you, represent critical moments in your life or career, or are significant in any less-than-obvious ways, but aren't really that different from your other art in terms of physical appearance, best procedure is to keep them off the market because the tendency is to overprice them. Isolated extreme prices may make perfect sense to you on a personal level, but not necessarily to viewers, and at worst, can skew your entire price structure in an unrealistic direction. If you can make a good convincing case to the art world as to why isolated works of art should be priced well beyond similar looking pieces, and the art world agrees with you, then fine. If not, save "sentimental value" or attachment-based pricing for when you become famous, have greater latitude in how you present your art to the public, and can better explain its intangible significance with respect to your overall output.

    As previously mentioned, your price structure should make sense to everyone, including people who don't necessarily know that much about art, but who like art or own art and who occasionally have basic questions about it such as why one piece is priced more or less than another. As long as you can explain how and why you set your base price range and overall price structure, and how and decide which art to price higher or lower in relation to that structure, you're good to go. Having a price structure that people can understand is essential in order to successfully put your art up for sale at either online or bricks-and-mortar venues, and ultimately sell to anyone who likes what they're looking at enough to start talking money.

    One more important point to keep in mind is that once you've established your selling prices, don't change them without a reason. Any deviation in price, particularly in the upward direction, has to be justified. In other words, don't raise or lower your prices just because you feel like it, because you saw someone else raise theirs, because you think they've been the same for long enough, or for any other reason not specifically related to your accomplishments, exposure or recognition as an artist, or to the frequency and consistency of your sales. People generally shy away from art that costs a certain amount one week and a different amount the next; they prefer consistency in prices.

    And now for a few hypotheticals:

    * Suppose your art becomes popular with the public and sales are brisk? When demand reaches a point where a good percentage of your art, at least a third, sells within several months of its appearance on the market, think about raising your prices. A price increase is also in order when demand for your art regularly outstrips demand for art by your contemporaries. In these cases, a price increase in the range of 10% to 15% would be reasonable for starters. If the art continues to sell well, perhaps another increase in that same range would be warranted. But be careful here-- not too much too fast. You never want to price yourself out of your own market.

    As you become better and better known, a brand name so to speak, your art begins to merit premium pricing, or pricing beyond that of your contemporaries. Exactly how much that premium is depends on the significance of your accomplishments (significant shows, awards, news coverage, popularity, museum exposure etc.) and the constant, or better yet, expanding interest in your work. Depending on how well-known you get, continue to price according to what "the competition" charges, but who that competition is will likely evolve from local artists to regional artists, and possibly even to national or international artists. As you advance in your career, always be aware of what category of artists you are perceived as belonging to and how much they charge for their art. Again-- avoid the temptation to go too far too fast.

    * Suppose on the other hand your price structure turns out to be too high-- people who like your art enough to ask how much it costs aren't buying? This usually means you have to lower your prices, but by how much? Re-pricing somewhat below what comparable art by artists in your area usually sells for is a good starting point, but rather than arbitrarily cut prices either across the board or on a piece-by-piece basis, conduct an informal survey first.

    When possible, speak with friends or good acquaintances about your lack of sales. Ask people you know, who follow you or who show regular interest in your art how much they would be willing to pay for it or how much they think it should sell for. Whenever you get the chance-- assuming you have a reasonable opportunity and aren't being too pushy-- also ask gallery owners, experienced collectors, consultants, fellow artists or other knowledgeable art people what they think. Put together as much of a consensus opinion as possible and then reduce prices accordingly. Your goal is to generate sales with the new lower structure, so make sure reductions are in line with or even slightly greater than consensus opinion. You want to avoid having to reduce prices again.

    * Suppose as you advance in your career or as tastes in art change, one type of your art finds favor with collectors or receives critical acclaim while focus or demand for your other art remains modest. Raise the prices of this in-demand art above those of your other art, and price earlier examples that are still in your possession higher as well, possibly even higher than those you're currently making. For example, if collectors come to prize your abstracts much more than your landscapes, raise prices on all past, present and future abstracts, with prices for your earlier most formative or significant works (those in the styles that are receiving the most attention) being raised the most.

    The longer you're around and the more successful you become, the greater the focus will often tend to get on your earlier work. Raising prices for earlier examples of your most desirable art is somewhat similar to pricing antiques or collectibles-- the first edition of a famous book costs more than later editions, early Barbie dolls cost more those produced today, and so on. The significance of your "first" or "earliest" art becomes increasingly apparent as you advance in your career. You have no idea how the public will ultimately respond to different styles of art when you first create or show them or what their legacy might one day be, but as that legacy becomes increasingly clear with the passage of time, price raises for certain types of your art will likely be in order.

    Continuing with this line of reasoning, suppose from a historical standpoint that a particular type of your art becomes significant beyond you as an artist-- in other words, as part of a recognized movement or school of art. For example, consider an artist who painted large abstract expressionist works in the 1950s. Prices for these abstracts will have to be priced not only according to how well that artist's career played out, but also according to how abstract expressionist paintings in general from the 1950s have been embraced by collectors. Because of their historical significance, prices for these abstracts may far outstrip prices for all other art the artist created, regardless of what the artist might think of them, but rather due to the fact that they were painted in a particular style at a particular point in time.

    No matter how old you are or how long you've been making art, know that art prices fluctuate over time as a result of a variety of factors. Set your initial price structure according to specific characteristics of your art and with respect to your local or regional art market, but be ready to revise those prices at any time (assuming adequate justification). The more you're aware of overall market conditions, of the careers and accomplishments of your fellow artists, and of how people respond to your art in general, the better prepared you are to maintain sensible selling prices and keep those art sales coming.

    ***

    Need help pricing your art? I regularly consult with artists about how to price their art, determine reasonable price structures for all of their art, explain their prices to potential buyers in language they can understand, and more. And all for only $75! Call me at 415.931.7875 to make an appointment or with any questions you might have, or email alanb@artbusiness.com

    Is a gallery offering you a show? Does someone want to rep your art? Entering into a business relationship? Signing a contract? If you answered yes to any of those questions, read Common Artist Legal Problems and How to Avoid Them.

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