Estate Planning for Artists

Let Professionals Manage the Art

For more information about artist estate planning, read Artist Tips: Checklist for Planning Your Art Estate

Q: I sometimes think about what will happen to my art once I'm gone and what plans I should be making in advance. I wonder who should inherit or control it, or who should manage or be in charge of selling or donating it. I have well over 400 pieces at my studio. Should my wife and children handle it or should that responsibility go to a gallery or someone who's represented me over the years? How about donating everything to a museum? Would that be a good idea?

A: Unless your immediate family members know plenty about your art and career as an artist, are capable of handling your business affairs, and can represent and show the work, putting them in control of your estate can potentially do more harm than good in terms of your legacy as an artist. In fact, the more successful you are and the less they know about the implications of that, the greater the chances that problems can arise as a result of mismanagement, mistrust, infighting, disagreements and overall inabilities to work with the art community. Family members who lack appropriate knowledge of your art career and an understanding of how the art business works are often completely unprepared to organize, present and promote your art effectively. And this is even more the case if you don't adequately prepare and educate them in advance about their responsibilities in this regard.

Among other difficulties, they can confuse sentimentality with dollar value, aren't sure what to sell and what to hold, have trouble understanding and setting prices, and may have difficulty distinguishing opportunists out to take advantage from galleries, collectors, consultants, agents or other reputable qualified fine art professionals who genuinely want to help. Lack of experience can cause them to set prices way too high, ask for too large a percentage of sales when working through galleries, agents or consultants, or refuse to listen when well-meaning galleries present good reasons for pricing the art more reasonably. Getting the art out into the public becomes difficult and in extreme cases, the legacy and market for an artist's art can be severely compromised because no one wants to deal with the headaches.

Less often, family members grossly undervalue the art and either sell it off in bulk for much less than it's worth, or occasionally even destroy quality pieces that they decide for whatever reason aren't significant or that they simply don't like. At worst, personal feelings can sometimes override reason, experience and understanding. Family members are not always to blame, by the way. In more than a few cases, artists fail to adequately inform family members that they have respected profiles in the arts community, keep them current on the values of their art, document their art and histories as artists, or provide specific instructions on how to archive, organize, maintain, donate, preserve or sell the work.

Best procedure for you or any artist is to make arrangements with a gallery, galleries or other experienced art professionals to represent your estate and to continue to show and sell your art on your behalf after you're gone (assuming that's what you want, of course). If you've had reasonable success in your career, consulting an attorney in advance who's familiar with handling artist estates is probably a good idea, as well as discussing the potential tax implications of your estate with an accountant. The decision on whether to have family members sit in on negotiations or to simply present them with the final decisions and agreements is up to you.

When negotiating or hammering out contracts (with the assistance of attorneys, consultants or accountants as required), issues worth considering or including are current wholesale and retail price structures (by the piece, or according to size, medium or other characteristics), seller commissions, methods of payment, percentages of profits from sales that go to specific family members, and how and where the art is to be stored, maintained and accessed. Ultimately, galleries or estate administrators should have control over whether and how much to raise or lower selling prices in the future, as well as when and where to show it, so don't be too rigid or insistent here. When a percentage of the art is to remain in the family, leave complete instructions as to who gets what (as well as who DOESN'T get what), and how to appraise, sell or donate specific works of art if or when those situations arise. Lastly, make sure every piece is catalogued and itemized according to your agreement.

If you don't have a solid relationship with a gallery, agent or representative, consider cultivating and hopefully establishing one sooner rather than later or at the very least, either building or expanding your website to archive, document your work, and offer some or all of it for sale. Another option would be to have someone knowledgeable about your art and career, perhaps a close friend or associate, who's not necessarily in the business represent your work, but galleries, dealers or related professionals are generally better for this. In any case, make sure you have adequate referrals from artists and collectors before proceeding with any particular gallery, executor, agent or representative. If for some reason you end up dealing with people who you don't really know, consult an arts attorney, an accountant and an appraiser (especially if you need to determine realistic values for your art) as required in order to protect your interests.

As for donating to museums or other institutions, contact mainly those that have expressed interest in your work over the years, ask whether they still have interest, get some idea of the art they want the most, and do your best to donate exactly what they ask for. Don't insist that anyone take more than they ask for, try to micro-manage the specifics of a donation, or indiscriminately donate to places that aren't familiar with your work. Excess or unwanted donations of art are often refused altogether, or when they are accepted, either get placed into eternal storage or can even end up getting sold at fundraisers or white elephant sales. Only consider a mass donation if an institution is particularly interested and can offer a concrete plan for your art. If your primary reason for donating is tax related, make sure you review all IRS restrictions and requirements in advance, get some idea of how much you can claim and what your approximate deductions might be, and plan everything out well ahead of time. In many cases, you can only deduct cost of materials rather than actual value of the art, so fully investigate and understand your options in that regard. Working with tax specialists and professionals is highly recommended.

Several simple steps you can take right now or at any time to enhance the future historical as well as market values of your art are to make sure everything is signed, titled or identified, dated or labeled with related specifics about when it was created, and get it catalogued, annotated and organized-- including sketches, drawings and lesser works. Be aware that in situations where artists leave behind quantities of unsigned works, those representing the estates are often forced to make estate stamps or provide other forms of certification after the fact. Galleries and collectors view these pieces as less desirable in the marketplace because the artists never took time to sign them and, therefore, tend to pay less for them.

Also document as many pieces as possible in terms of age, significance, and other relevant details as relate to the overall timeline of your career. Good documentation increases everyone's understanding of your art-- including you-- as well as its value, both historically and marketwise. Collectors prefer knowing more about the histories behind what they buy rather than less, and pay for that privilege. You younger artists might even think about starting this process now while the details of your careers and individual works of art are still relatively fresh in your minds because the more time that passes, the hazier you'll get when it comes to recalling and piecing together the progression of artistic events in your life.

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(art by Alan Ebnother)

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