The "V" Word


Without a doubt, the question I’m asked most frequently is how one arrives at a “value” for a picture. Of course, a purist would declare that every art-image has value, if only to its creator. But usually, the V-word (value) is attached only to the monetary considerations of the painting. Therefore, one who determines monetary evaluation of art must consider a variety of factors. While a few of these are determined a priori, therefore subjective, and falling within the parameters of connoisseurship, most factors are objective. Assuming access to certain standard research facilities factors (listed after the break) should provide the best basis for determining the monetary value of a painting.

1. Typicality: An artist’s career may result in a number of styles, the evolution of which is studied by art historians, critics, collectors and dealers who agree that one style is best of all. In other words, one style ( a breakthrough style, for example) may be deemed significantly more successful than others, thus, more valuable to collectors. In fact, it is common that peripheral styles are ignored, regardless of aesthetic qualities, for the best style, the so-called “signature” style. Thus, the demand for such works becomes obvious and prices for their paintings increase in galleries and at auction. For example, a canvas by the American impressionist Louis Ritman from his six-year signature period (1913-1919) might sell for ten times as much as a later work. Pictures by Ritman from this period have been bringing high prices for the past couple of decades–the demand fetches top dollars because they are typical of the “signature years.”

2. Condition: In a perfect world, paintings have no condition problems. However, paintings are created to exist for many years; yet, the fragility of these images makes them susceptible to deterioration and damage. The severity of a condition problem can impact on the value of a painting. For example, a canvas that has gathered a layer of dust and grime will not suffer much devaluation (because a conservator can easily remove those layers without ill effect to the canvas). On the other hand, a similar work by the same artist, which has become brittle and has lost pigment from flaking, will become significantly lowered in value. Even worse is a canvas that has been torn or deeply scratched. Of course, all of these condition problems can be corrected – to the naked eye that is – by a skilled professional painting conservator. Nonetheless, the damage is still there and quite apparent to an experienced eye. In summary, no matter how perfectly a badly damaged canvas has been repaired, the picture’s value has been lowered. Numerous subtleties must be considered regarding the value of a painting with condition problems, but in the final analysis one must assume the following maxim: the greater the condition problem the lower the value.

3. Provenance: This term refers to the painting’s history of ownership. Provenance or lack thereof bears directly on the value of a painting. Why? Because history about the picture provides indisputable proof of its authenticity. For example, if the original bill of sale, letter of title transfer or inscribed photo of the painting has descended with each successive owner, no better proof of authenticity could be obtained. Of course, the most valuable of these supporting documents would be the photograph (replete with inscription) showing the artist and purchaser in proximity to the art work. Such photos were taken at art exhibitions or inscribed later on the reverse. Exhibition catalogues that provide original titles, reproductions, and occasionally a list of owners are other valuable documents of provenance and authenticity. It should be noted here that original letters are excellent references for documents, showing provenance but these are frequently lost, ignored or changed over the years. We must also acknowledge the fact that there is prestige in provenance if the list of previous owners is impressive. If this sounds snobbish, try to overlook it. Doesn’t it stand to reason that a picture that has been owned by well-known, discriminating connoisseurs is more valuable than a similar work with no provenance? Isn’t it logical that this record of distinguished art collectors have lent certain “value” to a canvas? Apply this same idea to another “valuable” commodity some people may consider a form of art – haute couture. A one-of-a-kind dress from a famous designer holds a certain amount of intrinsic value, but if that dress were worn by a famous woman it would be worth more, owing to its impressive “provenance.”

4. Exhibition Record: Generally a painting with a long and hopefully impressive exhibition record, is more valuable than one with no record. The implication in such a listing of venues is positive because one must assume that a picture would not be included in shows requested by professional curators over the years were it not an extremely worthwhile image from the artist’s oeuvre. Of course, in considering the value of this list of shows, one must look at each and every venue since some carry more influence than others. For example, a painting by one of Robert Henri’s followers that had been shown in the famous “Eight” exhibition in New York at the Macbeth gallery in 1908 (a breakthrough show) would probably be more valuable than a similar work that was not shown there. A show such as this was well recorded in the annals of American art history thus is quite valuable to the paintings exhibited therein. Moreover, a painting that has been the focus of critical attention by virtue of its many venues gathers a certain icon value. For example, what value might one attach to Winslow Homer’s famous Snap the Whip (Butler Institute of American Art), which has been seen in several important exhibitions over the years? The exhibition record is an important factor to consider in the evaluation of a painting. On the other hand, many great masterpieces have been rejected in various exhibitions and were never shown to the public at all. Most of our readers will recall the conservative Paris Salon, which rejected countless works that are now considered priceless.

5. Pictorial Dynamic: This term has to do with the overall impact of the image on the viewer. Excluding non-objective abstraction, most paintings from the 18th through the early 20th centuries are two-dimensional illusions. Commonly, they are artistic depictions executed with various degrees of skill and expression. Yet, regardless of the style employed by the painter to achieve his creation, certain of these pictures seem to exude an aesthetic vitality, a kind of pictorial dynamic or what Clive Bell termed Significant Form, which at times transcends even the artist’s intended message. Whether landscape, portrait, or genre, certain images when viewed as originals seem to emit a compelling presence that is clearly unique. For example, no photo reproduction captures the pictorial dynamic that George Bellows achieved in his Stag at Sharkeys. This powerful work, like countless other images, must be viewed in its original form to be appreciated, thus properly evaluated. The method by which this so-called pictorial dynamic is ascertained is partly derived from the viewer’s own inner aesthetic sensibility and his objective awareness of the painter’s artistic style, but the pictorial litmus test provides an awareness of value that almost always proves itself. As one seeks to attach a value to such a painting, one must translate the worth of this pictorial impact. This recondite awareness of the image becomes a factor directly related to connoisseurship, the value of which is difficult to appraise monetarily. As a rule, such painting usually becomes the focus of critical attention and praise, the value of which provides a high ranking in the history of American art.

6. Literature: This factor has to do with the list of publications that focus on or even mention a painting. At times an art image is illustrated in a publication or merely described. This may be a simple factual record, i.e. canvas dimensions, medium, etc., or it may be a line-by-line description. One may find a reproduction of an obscure painting in a 100 year-old newspaper (sometimes available only on microfilm) or in an old survey book that has since been forgotten. Of course, if the image becomes the subject of art historical study, praise for its composition, draftsmanship, and execution gives value to the painting. After all, doesn’t everyone want to display a praiseworthy picture on one’s wall? But even if such a painting is only one of many in a catalogue or check list, this fact lends value to the work. Now imagine the best of all scenarios for a hypothetical work of art. For example, let’s say that a painting was included in one of the several catalogues published for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition where it was exhibited and seen by countless thousands of visitors. Let’s say that our picture was singled out by a local newspaper critic who described the image as “one of the best in the show.” We can assume that his opinion caught the attention of a scholar who wrote a book about the art of the Exposition and had the painting reproduced by an engraver. Fifty years later several more exhibitions resulted in further reproductions and high praise in books and catalogues. Ultimately, such an image would have achieved important credentials because it was excellent and these add significant value. Various references in the literature usually result in a higher value.

7. Framing: Frames add value to paintings. Unfortunately, most pictures from the past centuries have been re-framed, but when the original period frame is still intact that fact adds value to the painting. For example, a painting by the master John Singleton Copley, with an original Chippendale frame would add a good deal more value to the ensemble than the same canvas surrounded by a fine “period style” frame made last year. Nonetheless, in lieu of an original, a high quality period style frame from a maker such as A.P.F. in New York is the best alternative and as such the value of the picture is maintained. Hand carved frames made by artists add value to the canvas. One outstanding artist who added value to his pictures with frames that he designed and carved was Augustus Dunbier. Arguably, the best known artist frame makers of the late 19th and early 20th century were Whistler, Arthur Mathews, Maurice and Charles Prendergast and the infamous architect-designer, Stanford White. Framing is an extremely important factor in determining the value of a painting. In summary, we see that the factors listed here are each and every one important in arriving at a monetary value of a painting. People often ask me about art as an investment. My stock answer is: don’t buy any art with investment in mind. However, according to Art Digest, seventy-five years ago, beauty is the quality that guarantees value:

Artists, art dealers and all organizations that nourish art appreciation in America should emphasize at this time that worthy objects of beauty make the safest investment that it is possible for man to find. Wars may come and go, industrial crises may cripple the economic world, stocks and bonds may crumble in value, a nation’s currency may depreciate or become worthless, but beautiful and recognized works of art are unperishable [sic] and their value fluctuates but little. The owner of a real work of art reaps two sorts of profit. The value of his property steadily increases as time passes: the history of art proves this. And he draws spiritual dividends worth more than money.