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  • Collectors Often Prefer Artists' Earlier Works



    Q: I recently inherited a painting from my father. He used to do pro bono legal work for artists and this painting was given to him by one of the artists who he helped. The artist is pretty well-known now; he was just beginning to get known when he gave the painting to my father. Since he wasn't famous then, does that make my painting worth less than the ones he does now?

    A: It's actually worth more. Early works are often worth more and tend to be more collectible than later ones whether the artists become famous or not, especially those earlier works done in styles for which artists eventually became best known. This is true for several reasons. From a historical standpoint, early works tell us the most about how an artist's mature style evolved. From collectible and supply/demand art market standpoints, in the case of more famous artists, the majority of the earliest pieces are usually in museums, private collections, or in the families of the artists and are not available for sale. On those infrequent occasions when a significant early work comes back onto the market, the competition to buy it can be fierce and the selling price high. Later works, on the other hand, tend to be more plentiful and easier for collectors to acquire. No matter how famous the artist, early works tend to be harder to find than later ones.

    Earlier art also tends to be more energized, daring, inspired, passionate, meticulous, exploratory, and all kinds of other good stuff like that. When artists are younger or less experienced, they don't really know where they're going, where they'll end up, what the future holds, or how their art will be received. Conceiving, creating and producing new and different work is a genuine adventure, and it almost always shows in the art. As they progress in their careers, they usually become more settled, deliberate, systematic and predictable in their processes and styles of making art. They tend to gravitate more toward creating art with certain signature looks, do less experimentation, and come to understand exactly what and how much they have to produce in order to make the livings they need and satisfy their collector bases at the same time. With the passage of time, the uncertainty, excitement, discovery and trial-and-error of producing new work is often taken out of the mix, and replaced by a mature disciplined sense of direction. At worst, making art can become more of a formulaic or assembly line process than a creative one, where the artist settles into a system of producing the same basic work over and over again.

    For you artists reading this, you might seriously consider "banking" some significant examples of your early work-- particularly ones that are influential, notable or otherwise meaningful in your evolution as an artist (and continue doing so throughout the course of your career). If you're destined to become famous or even reasonably established or known, collecting your own work will likely turn out to be one of the best decisions (and investments) you ever made. Early on in an artist's career, it's often all about the latest, hottest, trendiest art you're producing, but you'll see as you get older that this paradigm changes dramatically over time. All you have to do is look at noteworthy examples of art by famous artists of the past and you'll begin to understand the hierarchy and significance of chronology from historical perspectives.

    As is the case with early works of art by individual artists, works of art that are identified or associated with the onsets of important art movements are also generally more collectible than later pieces done in those same styles. For example, an abstract expressionist painting dating from 1946 tends to be more valuable than one dating from 1959 (all else being equal, that is). At times, even works by minor artists can command substantial prices, not because of the artist necessarily, but rather because of the historical significance of the art. Just like with individual artists, early examples of art that's emblematic of particular styles or movements are more sought after and collectible than later examples because they offer insight into how those styles or movements began and evolved. In addition, they tend to exemplify risk taking and experimentation, and were often created in relatively hostile atmospheres and against prevailing styles and modes of their day. Early impressionist, modernist, abstract expressionist and conceptual works, for example, are highly prized by museums and collectors and often command exceptionally impressive prices when placed up for sale. This is less true with later examples as more and more artists come to adopt the style, the art becomes more plentiful, compositions become more repetitive and predictable, and so on. Early pieces are leaders; later ones are followers. It's that simple and no more complicated.

    A notable exception to the "early is better" rule is when artists don't develop their mature styles that they're known for until later in their careers. Once those mature styles emerge, however, the same exact rules apply once again. The earliest examples of those styles become the pieces most sought after by collectors.

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