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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 1 September 2007

The Value of Art

by Caroline Pelletier / September 4, 2007

Defining the value of artwork is tricky. When faced with a particular piece of art each person reacts differently. We may immediately be drawn to it, absolutely hate it or feel altogether ambivalent because we simply cannot understand it. Art is extremely subjective and personal to each viewer and therein lays the problem when determining its value. Some may argue that monetary value is only one part of an artwork’s worth. How then, can value be assigned to art?

“Art follows a value system like many other things,” explains Jacquie Stoneberger, partner of the Collins, Lefebvre and Stoneberger Gallery. In this business the law of supply and demand is a key driving force. Many factors affect demand including economic climate and the art genre but the overriding element affecting the monetary value of an art piece is the work’s creator, the artist.

The value of an artist can simply be a question of personal taste, but essentially it’s based on who the art milieu crown’s a star within a certain genre’s context. For instance, when collecting Impressionist prints, Monet’s value as an artist supercedes many other artists who have been less critically acclaimed or celebrated in the course of art history. Once the value of an artist has been determined, the price range for his or her works of art will be established accordingly.

During their lifetime, most artists experience strong as well as weak periods. François Babineau, assistant director of Simon Blais Gallery says, “If you take Riopelle, for example, the market agrees that the pieces from the 50’s are more important than the pieces from the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s. You must do your homework and find out which period was “good” for the artist. Some are good all over, some aren’t.” How productive an artist was (i.e., how many pieces he or she created) also affects value. Limited supply, especially one-of-a-kinds, as in any business, definitely drive up the price. “Some artists produce very few works, and if they are of superior quality, the price will reflect the rarity of the object,” remarks Stoneberger.

In the case of younger artists who may have the hype but an incomplete portfolio to back it up, purchasing their works could be risky. “Who’s to say they won’t burn out a few years from now?” says Babineau. The gamble could prove rewarding or it could lead to disappointment.. What then would galleries advise emerging artists on how to create a portfolio that is attractive to both galleries and buyers? “It is important to artistically develop and not stay with the same genre,” Babineau suggests. “Be well-aware of what is going on in the art world, know and be familiar with the big galleries.” Indeed, being on the good side of notable galleries can be very practical, as they tend to be responsible for building the hype around an artist. Galleries perform the important and dual function of serving the artistic community and through marketing, promote the value of an art piece. “Recognition of the artist by his peers and colleagues in art publications cannot be underestimated,” Stoneberger points out. Although marketing helps focus attention to an art piece, buyers must beware of possible “over-hyping” of the artwork and its affects on value.

Babineau recalls what happened two years ago, when the economy and the art market were booming. “Some companies set a new record, pushing the so-called value way over its worth. Prices were outrageously going higher and higher, as the market was going very well at the time.” Now that an economic crisis is emerging in the United States, however, art auctions will likely be adversely impacted such that certain art pieces will be considered overpriced making them more difficult to sell. As Stoneberger puts it, “You cannot ‘make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear’ indefinitely. Eventually, prices seek their (own) level.”

Considering that different people collect art for different reasons, placing value on a piece of art is definitely a subjective endeavour. “Some of our clients own collections of slighter monetary value,” observes Babineau, “but you walk through the collection and are blown away by its cultural value.” He adds that any museum would be more than happy to receive any part of such a collection; museums collect and value art for very different reasons than private galleries, placing greater importance on cultural landmark pieces and educational works. A whole spectrum of a renowned artist’s work represents more value to a museum than his or her most highly-priced one. Both Babineau and Stoneberger endorse this strategy. Buying art just for the sake of owning an expensive commodity isn’t necessarily the wisest of decisions.

“Artwork acquired for the wrong reasons will always decline in value,” Stoneberger warns, whereas “art which speaks of its time and culture will always be valued at least for its historical significance.”

“There’s no sense in buying a piece that you don’t even like, whether it’s a million dollar Picasso piece or a $300 work of art from a young local artist,” advises Babineau. “The best value is found in what speaks to the buyer the most, one that will continue to speak to you years from now.” n

(c) La Scena Musicale