The Art of Pricing Fine Art

Ah, the prices of artwork. Why does this sculpture over here cost $2,500 while that one over there is valued at $25,000? Pricing fine art can be one of the most vexing, perplexing, and frustrating activities for an artist because it’s so subjective. That’s why I think of it as more of an art than a science. So this week, I’d like to share a few points to ponder about prices.

Point #1: Don’t think in terms of what you want to get for a piece; think in terms of what the market will bear. Although there is a huge, huge range of prices for artwork, there is also such a thing as “market value,” meaning the price that most knowledgeable people are willing to pay for a work of art in the style, medium, and location where you’re selling. This amount may be far more—or possibly far less—than what you think you should earn. So, the key is to put some serious effort into researching the appropriate price points for your work. Once you know what the market will bear, you may have to adjust your prices up or your expectations down accordingly.

Point #2: Account for all your costs and make sure you’re profitable. Having made Point #1, you also have to make sure that you’re covering all of your costs when you sell your artwork. And when I say costs, I mean all of them. Not only should you consider your time and materials, but you also need to figure in your studio expenses, admin costs, and other expenses, such as the shipping to a gallery or directly to a collector. And, if you’re relying on your artwork for most or all of your income, you even need to factor in the fact that you’ll only sell about 50% or 60% of what you produce. In other words, the value of that subset of your work, not the value of your entire inventory, needs to be enough to support you.

Point #3: Set prices appropriately for your sales channel. What’s a sales channel? I’m talking about whatever venues you’re using for selling your artwork. Generally speaking, people expect art at outdoor art fairs and festivals to be moderately priced, usually in the hundreds of dollars unless it’s one of the more prestigious fairs, in which case you might see low thousands. Online galleries typically have prices in the hundreds to low thousands, as do mid-tier bricks-and-mortar galleries. And finally, prices at the higher-end galleries often start at the mid thousands and only go up from there.

Point #4: Keep your prices consistent across all sales channels. Even if you’re fortunate to be represented by a gallery or two, you may still want to continue selling your artwork directly to the public through other venues, such as your own website. If your galleries are okay with that, it could be great, as long as you keep your prices the same across the board. You don’t want to undercut your galleries by offering discounted prices to your direct-sales collectors or you will be dropped from the gallery. One way you might get around this touchy issue is to sell different types of work through different channels. For example, you might sell your studio paintings through galleries, but sell your smaller sketches directly.

Point #5: Keep your prices consistent across sizes. One thing that’s always surprising to me is when artists assign different prices to the same size works. For example, most of their 16 x 20s are priced at $350, but then if they do a 16 x 20 that they think is exceptionally good, they price it at $500. How will this artist explain that certain paintings are cheaper because they aren’t as good? If someone is interested in buying a “less competent” painting, will he or she still be interested when the artist admits it’s not the best work? My advice is to be consistent. The only exception to this rule is when the exceptional quality of a work of art has been recognized with a formal award, and even then, I’d still prefer consistent prices.

A lack of research on the front end is often where I see artists get into trouble. Imagine this scenario: Jim starts selling his work directly to the public at low to moderate prices, say an average price of $300 because he thinks that’s what his paintings are worth. He’s happy with that price, but the reality is that his work is very good, worth far more than what he’s asking. People recognize his talent, and he sells a lot. Jim gets noticed by a gallery or two, and then he’s invited to sell through a gallery. His new gallery rep knows Jim’s paintings will sell for $1,000 each, and she wants to earn as much as she can so she insists on that price point. At first, Jim is excited at the prospect of getting half of each sale—hey, now he’s getting $500 a pop!—until he realizes that he’ll need to raise the prices of his direct-sale pieces to align with his gallery prices. Suddenly, he’s afraid that no one will buy thousand-dollar paintings at an art fair or from his website, especially when his existing collectors are accustomed to $300 price tags. Even worse, because the gallery situation is new, he’s afraid he won’t sell nearly as many paintings through the gallery, and he’ll end up earning far less. It would have been so much better if Jim had done his homework up front, recognized the true value of his work, and sold his paintings for a higher price from the get-go. He might not have sold quite as many paintings in the early days, but then his transition to higher gallery prices wouldn’t seem quite so shocking to his fan base.    

Have I convinced you to do your homework? Focus your research efforts on whatever sales channel you intend to use. If you plan to sell at outdoor shows, visit outdoor shows and note the prices. If you dream of getting into a gallery, visit galleries. Within that, find the artists whose works are most similar to yours in terms of style, subject, medium, and above all, quality. Yes, it will take quite a lot of effort to seek them out, but you’ll be glad you did in the long run.

What are your thoughts on pricing? Let’s connect!

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1 comment

  • Jennifer, The Northwest Watercolor Society would like to have you for a program. Is it alright to pass your contact info? It this the best address?

    CArla OConnor

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