I am the first to admit that art pricing is one of the greatest mysteries of the art business. Valuing art is more akin to alchemy than it is to hard science. Artists who are new to the art market will often ask me how much their art is worth. I can only shrug my shoulders and say, “It depends.”
The value of art is largely arbitrary. There are no objective elements that would allow a gallery owner or an artist to develop a universally optimal price for a particular piece of artwork. There are many variables that come into play with pricing. Ultimately, the right value for a piece of artwork is a price at which the artwork will sell quickly and provide a profit to the artist and art gallery.
Many artists who are in the early stages of selling their work operate under the misconception that selling artwork is analogous to selling other products. In most businesses, offering buyers a lower price provides a competitive advantage and increases sales.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard artists say, “People tell me my prices are too low, but I’m afraid to raise them because it will scare away buyers.” These artists are often not selling much of their work even at the low prices, so they are afraid that if they increase their prices they will experience even fewer sales.
In classic economic theory this thinking would make sense – increasing the price would decrease the demand for the art, and thus slow down the rate of sales. Logic tells us that a lower price will make the art accessible to a wider range of buyers and that those buyers will view your pricing in comparison to other artists. If your price is lower than the competition, the thinking goes, consumers will buy your work.
In my experience, this kind of logic simply doesn’t apply to the art market. A lower price would increase demand if you were selling a widget that was identical to your competitors’ widgets, but you aren’t. You are creating artwork that is unique and different from what any other artist is creating.
You are also selling in a market where a low price isn’t the primary motivating factor for a purchase. The purchase of artwork is completely discretionary. In order to afford art, a buyer has to have some disposable income available to purchase what most would consider a luxury item. Luxury buyers typically don’t want to feel that they are buying the cheapest option available. This explains why people will buy a Rolls Royce when a Hyundai would get them to their destination, and it also explains why art buyers will spend many thousands of dollars on a piece of artwork.
Ironically, in the art world, a lower price can actually hamper your sales! Most art buyers judge the quality of artwork by its price, not it’s price by the quality. It’s too difficult to look at a work of art and decide what it should be worth. If you put an irrationally low price on a piece of artwork, you are signalling to the buyer that there must be something wrong with it.
Of course, you might ask, “Low price compared to what?” That is the perfect question to ask. Buyers will judge your price relative to the other artwork in the context in which they are viewing it. For this reason, I suggest that artists price their work in the midrange of the markets in which they show or in which they want to show.
Your work should neither be the highest nor lowest price work in any given market where you are trying to sell. Because art markets can vary dramatically, this means that once you set your pricing, it may preclude you from showing your work in some art markets or venues. For example, many artists who are showing through galleries in well-established art markets can no longer show their work in small art festivals or in their hometown if they live in an area that doesn’t have a strong market.
This also means that you shouldn’t randomly inflate your pricing to an extreme level after reading this post. I can imagine you grabbing a marker to add zeros to your price tags while saying “The author of this blog post promises me my sales will increase if I raise my prices!” While low prices can impede sales, high prices that are out of line with the market can do the same.
If you are struggling with pricing, I would suggest that the best approach is to do some market research in the geographic areas where you feel you would have the best possibility of selling your work. Typically these would be areas that would attract buyers who are interested in your subject matter and where there are a good number of art galleries or art shows/festivals. Research how other artists in that market are pricing their work, and then price your work accordingly – in the midrange.
In closing, allow me to illustrate the topsy-turvy nature of pricing in the art market with an example from my gallery. Several years ago we began representing a new artist. It often takes a while for sales to kick into gear with a new artist, but this particular artist’s work began selling right away. In fact, within a couple of weeks, we completely sold out of the initial shipment of art that the artist had sent.
The second shipment of work likewise sold very quickly. It was very gratifying for both us and the artist to see such a strong response from our collectors, but it also posed a challenge. We couldn’t keep his artwork in the gallery for more than a few weeks, which meant that no matter how hard the artist was working, most of our collectors never had the chance to see it, let alone buy a piece. (I know, this is a “problem” we would all like to have!)
It seemed clear that a price increase was necessary. The artist was reluctant to raise prices for fear that we would mess up the mojo that was driving sales and that sales would surely grind to a halt. I persisted, and eventually we agreed to bump prices up by about ten percent.
Did sales slow down by the same ten percent? Not at all; in fact the tempo of sales increased! Over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve raised prices by about 50% from where they were initially. We still can’t keep the work in the gallery.
This example is certainly a bit of an outlier, but every artist should be working to find venues where the demand outpaces the ability to create. When you find that market, don’t be afraid to raise your prices.
Have you found it difficult to set pricing on your artwork? Do you agree that a low price doesn’t necessarily drive increased sales? Do people tell you your pricing is too low?
Share your experiences with pricing in the comments below.