A Piece of Art that is a Specialist´s Dream

29 March 2021

A Piece of Art that is a Specialist´s Dream

How does one define the value of art? If you studied art history, you probably had an essay topic that revolved around this torturous philosophical question. For someone passionate about art, it feels crude to categorize its abundant fruit into groups arranged by monetary value alone, or worse, to draw conclusions of what art is ‘better’ simply from the price it achieves at auction. Since the birth of Artnet and the Art Sales Index however, we have a convenient log of almost all the paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs and prints sold at auction for the past few decades.

It is tempting therefore, to fall into the alluring trap of algorithms and trends in an effort to create a system that can accurately price an artwork based on the input of basic information such as its date, size, medium and the artist’s name. Though these facets certainly play a part in the pricing process, from my personal experience of working at an auction house, value is considerably influenced by additional research.

The Christie’s Rockefeller sale in 2018 reached the highest auction total ever for a private collection, breaking 22 records across all categories. Of course the sale featured real masterpieces, but was part of its success reliant on the celebrity name ‘Rockefeller’? Did the clients drive the price up to over three times its low estimate because they were keen on the wooden life-size bird-mannequin or because they ‘wanted a piece of Rockefeller’?

Provenance has always played a vital role in the authentication of an artwork and galleries steeped in history with rigorous archives are a specialist’s dream. Particularly when discussing art that predates the 21st century, it is important to have a clean provenance that leaves no doubt in a buyer’s mind. If your artwork was included in an important museum retrospective or printed on the cover of a career-defining show, then you’ve also lucked out.

What then of the art works that have been tucked away hidden from the public eye for generations? Has their lack of visibility negatively impacted their value? To put it simply, no. Some of the most memorable stories that stemmed from my time at Christie’s arose from the thrill of discovering art works in unlikely places. One of my earliest experiences that gave me my two minutes of fame in the Daily Mail was exactly that - a classic cash-in-the-attic story. A stunning painting by the Scottish artist John Duncan Fergusson titled Poise, smashed the artist’s previous record at auction when it sold for £638,500 in 2014 against an estimate of £80,000 – 120,000.

So, is there a recipe for the perfect storm? The ideal tick-list to ensure your artwork is positioned at the higher end of the price bracket recorded for its artist? Unfortunately, it´s not as simple as that. Many factors when balanced together can have a similar desired outcome and there is of course, one vital factor that has a resounding effect on the value of an artwork – the aesthetic quality of the piece itself. You may think this is entirely subjective, however specialists would frequently agree on what was a ‘better’ example of an artist’s oeuvre or what was a ‘nicer’ composition. When you spend enough time working for the art market, you realise what sells and what struggles.

If you want to learn more, enrol on the EDUART START programme. Bojana Popović, independent art advisor and EDUART EXPERIENCE specialist in Post-War & Contemporary Art, gives an online talk on The Value of Art.