Contemporary Art is Often Difficult to Resell

Q: I bought a small sculpture from a contemporary artist about fifteen years ago when she was just starting out. I paid about $400 for it. Similar pieces now sell online and at galleries for $3000 to $5000. Can I sell mine for this much? Where would be the best place to sell it? I called up a couple of auction houses and they weren't interested in handling it. The galleries that sell her art aren't interested either. Help!

A: Unless contemporary artists are famous (or at least reasonably well-known), the demand for their art is high, and the supply is relatively limited, being able to resell older or even relatively recent works at auction, at galleries that represent the artists, or on secondary market websites (either fixed-price or auction) can range anywhere from challenging to unlikely. In fact, the less well-known an artist is and the less broad-based their support, the lower realistic secondary market asking prices have to be (as compared to gallery retail) in order to attract any interest whatsoever. One big reason for this is that when artists are still alive and producing, the galleries representing them can get all the brand new latest art they need for free directly from the artists. And even if one of the artist's galleries is interested in your sculpture, they typically take forty to sixty percent commissions on sales-- likely the same amout they would take from you if you consigned it. That would leave you $1800 under optimum circumstances (assuming it's worth a good solid $3000 and the gallery takes only a 40% commission... and even more importantly, assuming they can sell it).

Other factors limit the resale prospects for contemporary art as well. For example, if an artist is young or just starting out, the fan base is typically small, so putting the art up for sale on the open market will likely receive little or no response no matter how you price it. With younger artists, collectors tend to know the artist or their galleries personally and purchase directly from them. The same generally holds true for artists who are reasonably known, but have comparatively small markets for their art and limited gallery representation, or who sell mainly online or directly out of their studios. In spite of their profiles, any buying or selling tends to be "all in the family" so to speak (artist- or gallery-direct), where everybody pretty much knows everybody, and third-party sellers tend to be looked on as outsiders. Basically, the narrower the market, the lower you have to price the art for resale, regardless of circumstances.

To complicate matters, artists or galleries that represent artists sometimes badmouth those artists' earlier art, thereby making it even more difficult to sell than it is already. For example, they might say that it's not current, the artist doesn't make it anymore, the artist doesn't like it, it's not what collectors are looking for, and so on. The art may be perfectly fine, but that's not the point. The point is that it's seen to a certain extent as a threat-- as competing with whatever art the artists or their galleries currently have for sale. And that's how they sometimes fight back.

As if that's not enough, contemporary art collectors generally prefer the perks and advantages of buying from and interacting with the artists and/or their galleries either directly or online mainly because they know exactly what they're getting. A major component of contemporary art collecting is social-- it's all about being part of the scene, getting to know people, having access to artists and other significant personalities in the art community, and so on. Though buying from total strangers on secondary markets can be rewarding and often works out just fine, there can be risks involved. For this reason, buyers may be reluctant to do business with private sellers unless they are experienced in knowing how to research, evaluate and figure out exactly what they're getting for their money.

About the only way you can make this artist's art attractive to collectors is to price it well below retail. Maybe offer it initially at $1500 or so as a sensible initial starting point. If there's no interest or response, you may have to work your way down from there. As for where to sell, you can try secondary market websites, classified ads, online auctions, art blogs or discussion groups or other online resources that mention or provide information about the artist, and so on. But if you like the art, don't need the money and just want to see if you can get top retail, hold on to it is best... because getting top retail is nowhere near possible at this time. Assuming the artist continues to be active and productive, sell consistently and become increasingly popular with collectors, earlier works like yours often end up becoming more valuable and sought after than later works. But that potential outcome is still years down the road.

A more important point to keep in mind is that you should be buying art because you love it, because it enriches and enhances your surroundings, and you want it to be a part of your life. No matter what you might hear about art as investment, consider it as an investment in your quality of life and NOTHING MORE. That way, whatever happens to the value-- whether it goes up, down or sideways-- will have absolutely nothing to do with your appreciation and enjoyment of the work.

(painting by Cheryl Kelley)

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