How Do We Price Older American Paintings?

Frequently Asked Questions: Part One

In answering this frequently asked question, we will describe in general terms what a dealer considers when setting a price. The task requires an expert eye and years of study, and we offer one caveat to our readers: all rules have exceptions! Our mission is to inspire further investigation. A dealer's first consideration is the popularity of the artist. The work must be thoroughly typical of the artist and be painted during his best period to bring the highest price.

Subject matter is another key determinant of price. European scenes by American painters, for example, generally bring far less than canvases depicting American scenes or subjects. Public taste plays the important role here, not necessarily the merits of the painting. Thus a contrarian buyer who eschews public taste in subject matter and buys what he or she likes may acquire a high-quality painting at a lesser price.

Quality is one of the most important factors in setting price, and the eye of a competent dealer, one who has seen the entire scope of an artist's work, is crucial in determining quality. We see many bargains advertised in the marketplace that are offered at prices well below the artist's average. Unfortunately these bargains rarely hold their value for the long term, and dealers who specialize in quality will refuse to handle them.

In contrast, an artist's masterpiece will bring a price many times higher than the artist's average. Time has shown that an artist's best canvases hold their value; it is also an extraordinary pleasure to gaze upon an artist's finest effort.

Size greatly affects price, again in disproportionate multiples. The ideal painting size, 24" X 36" (or similar), might fetch $100,000 while a 10" x 12" by the same artist might bring $12,000. Paintings that are "outsized", unless of museum quality, are slower to sell, but a contrarian buyer can acquire here a high-quality work for less than average.

Condition of a painting, whether it has been inpainted or over-cleaned ("skinned") is a major component of price. A severely over-cleaned painting, even by a top artist, can be nearly worthless. A dealer's responsibility is to thoroughly examine a work and describe its condition in detail to clients. Dealers who specialize in the finest paintings, however, simply will not handle works with major condition problems.

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