Monday, April 15, 2013

Beauty and Collectibility Are in the Eye of the Collector

QUESTION: How do I determine an artist’s most collectible works? Are they the ones that sell for the most money? And, if so, are they the ones I should be collecting?

ANSWER: Collecting art can be tricky. More than any other collectible, the popularity of certain artists and their works ebb and flow with the trends in the art world. An artist that’s extremely popular one year may fall to the bottom of the heap the next.

An artist's most collectible works usually depict subject matter that has gained popularity among art collectors. If more people collect the works of a particular artist, those works will go up in price and value. In this case, outside forces play a large role in the determining what type of  subject matter looks like, not necessarily the artists, themselves. One year, it could be landscapes and seascapes, another year city scenes, abstracts, portrait, or interiors. The only way to discover  what an artist's most collectible works look like is by talking with dealers, collectors and others familiar with that artist's body of work.

The farther a particular work departs from favored subject matter, the less collectors of that artist’s works will be interested in it. You might compare this to a musician who becomes famous for one or two songs because his or her fans insist on hearing those songs over and over regardless of what direction that musicians career takes. That doesn't mean that artists or musicians have only one or two noteworthy moments in their careers, but rather that tunnel vision of fans affects what’s perceived to be popular or collectible. The same holds true for writers who become successful based on a particular style of writing or subject matter. When they deviate from that, their fans find someone else to read.

Art work featuring the best, most collectible subject matter usually sells for the most money. But determining whether or not a work falls into the "most collectible" category based purely on how much it sells for isn’t how the art business works. Instead, an individual piece of art must be evaluated by experts in terms of the artist's entire output, his career evolution, and with respect to what was going on around him at the time. Price does not enter into that evaluation—it’s the consequence.

Works of art can also sell for high prices even though they may not fall into an artist's"most collectible" category. For example, a piece might be valuable because an artist produced it during an important time in art history. It then becomes more collectible by fans of the movement rather than by fans of the artist.

As for what art work you should or should not collect, follow the golden rule of collecting— collect what you like. If your tastes center around pieces that don't have that "most collectible" look, fine. Go ahead and buy them. Just know the artist's market well enough so that you pay the going rate for that type of art, not the going rate for the most collectible types.

Also, pay attention to collecting trends in the art world. Subscribe to publications that offer news about recent auctions or sales of art. Know which artists are hot and which are not. And know if a scam may be afoot. One woman hid her late artist husband’s work from the public for a number of years so that it would appear to be rare and pristine—translation: never appeared on the market before. She thought that doing so would raise the prices of the works when they did appear. When she did begin selling his works, she did so in dribs and drabs, so as not to flood the market with his works, thus lowering the price.

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