Collectors Often Prefer Artists' Earlier Works

Q: I recently inherited a painting from my father. He used to do pro bono legal work for artists and this painting was given to him by one of the artists who he helped. The artist is pretty well-known now; he was just beginning to get known when he gave the painting to my father. Since he wasn't famous then, does that make my painting worth less than the ones he does now?

A: It's actually worth more. Early works are usually worth more and are more collectible than later ones whether the artists become famous or not-- especially those done in the styles for which the artists became known. This is true for several reasons. From a historical standpoint, early works tell us the most about how an artist's mature style evolved. From collectible and art market standpoints in the case of more famous artists, the majority of the earliest significant pieces are usually in museums, private collections, or in the families of the artists and are not available for sale. On those infrequent occasions when a significant early work comes back onto the market, the competition to buy it can be fierce and the selling price high. Later works, on the other hand, tend to be more plentiful and easier to get.

Early art also tends to be more energized, spontaneous, daring, passionate, meticulous, exploratory, and all kinds of other good stuff like that. When artists are younger or inexperienced, they don't really know where they're going, where they'll end up, what the future holds, or how their art will be received; producing and creating art is a genuine adventure. As they progress in their careers, they become more deliberate and predictable in their processes and styles of making art. They tend to gravitate toward creating art with a certain look, and they come to understand exactly what and how much they have to produce in order to make comfortable livings and satisfy their collector bases. With the passage of time, the uncertainty and excitement of producing new work is often taken out of the mix, replaced by predictability. At worst, making art can become more of a formulaic or assembly line process than a creative one.

For you artists reading this, you might seriously consider "banking" some significant examples of your early work-- particularly ones that are influential, notable or otherwise meaningful in your evolution as an artist (and continue doing so throughout the course of your career). If you're destined to become famous or even reasonably established or known, collecting your own work will likely turn out to be one of the best decisions you ever made. Early on, it's often all about the latest, hottest, trendiest art you're producing, but you'll see that this paradigm changes dramatically over time-- all you have to do is look at noteworthy examples of art by famous artists and you'll begin to understand the import of chronology.

As is the case with early works of art by individual artists, works of art that are identified or associated with the onsets of important art movements are also generally more collectible than later pieces done in those same styles. For example, an abstract expressionist painting dating from 1946 tends to be more valuable than one dating from 1959 (all else being equal, that is). At times, even works by minor artists can command substantial prices, not because of the artist necessarily, but rather because of the historical significance of the art. Just like with individual artists, early examples of art that's emblematic of particular styles or movements are more sought after and collectible than later examples because they offer insight into how those styles or movements developed. In addition, they tend to exemplify risk taking and experimentation, and were often created in hostile atmospheres and against prevailing styles and modes of their day. Early impressionist, modernist and abstract expressionist works, for example, are highly prized by museums and collectors and command hefty prices when placed up for sale. This is less true with later examples as more and more artists adopt the style, the art becomes more plentiful, compositions become more repetitive and predictable, and so on. Early pieces are leaders; later ones are followers. It's that simple and no more complicated.

A notable exception to the "early is better" rule is when artists don't develop the mature styles that they're known for until later in their careers. Once those mature styles emerge, however, the rule applies once again. The earliest examples of those styles become the pieces most sought after by collectors.

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