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  • Artist Estates - Paintings, Sculptures, Photographs
    Art Gallery and Dealer Monopolies



    Q: I went to an art opening at a gallery that was selling paintings by a recently "rediscovered" artist who died about 25 years ago. The gallery has several hundred paintings by the artist and are the exclusive representatives of his estate. According to them, the artist was popular in this part of the country from the late 1940's through about 1975, but his art has hardly been shown since the late 1970's. The paintings are pretty nicely done and priced in the $8,000-$15,000 range. Would you recommend that I buy one?

    A: Artist estates like this one come onto the market with some regularity as artists rarely pass away without leaving behind varying quantities of unsold artwork. Artists who are better known and have gallery representations during their lifetimes often make arrangements with those galleries to continue representing them and selling their art after they die. When an artist is not that well known or does not have ongoing gallery representation, the artist's family or whomever inherits the art typically makes arrangements with one gallery or dealer to market the art to the public as the artist's exclusive representative. Less frequently, dealers rediscover and attempt to present and market the estates of artists who worked in virtual obscurity with little or no previous gallery exposure. Whatever the case, if you like the art and are thinking about buying some, do a little research first.

    What distinguishes an artist estate situation like the ones mentioned above from other art selling situations is that a single gallery or dealer controls the market for the art. In other words, forces of supply and demand are somewhat neutralized because the gallery decides what and how much comes onto the market at any given time. This level of control effectively creates a monopoly in the marketplace, and the greater the percentage of an artist's art that a dealer or gallery either owns or otherwise represents, the stronger the monopoly (this applies to living artists too, by the way). Consequently, a dealer or gallery with an art monopoly can arbitrarily set and control the artist's selling prices. Before you buy "art monopoly" art, as you would be doing here, you have to make sure that the prices you're being asked to pay are fair, reasonable and not excessive.

    Most artist estates are marketed fairly with the art priced according to the accomplishments of the artist, the characteristics of the art, and in consideration of what the market will bear. Occasionally, however, a gallery represents the estate of an average artist as a great artist or a great discovery and places excessively high prices on the art. The owner may believe the artist is truly significant; then again, he might simply be exploiting a moneymaking opportunity. Even if he manages to sway the public for a while with heavy promotion, in the end, ordinary art sells for ordinary prices and those who overpay at his gallery will have little chance of ever recouping their initial cash outlays.

    With any art monopoly, best procedure is to research the significance of the artist and the fairness of the representing dealer's asking prices on your own before making any purchases. Follow the directives below in order to make sure you get a good piece of art for your money:

    ** Get biographical and resume information about the artist's career from the gallery selling the art as well as from outside sources like artist databases, biographical references and various websites that may contain information about the artist's career and accomplishments. You might even check with an art reference library or art section of a major public library to see whether they have any information on file. You're looking for evidence that the artist regularly showed, sold and was recognized for his art. He needs a pretty good track record in order to justify the $8,000- $15,000 prices that you're being asked to pay.

    ** Check auction records and other art price databases to see whether this artist's art sells on secondary markets and, if so, for how much. You want evidence that the art changes hands for at least 30% to 50% of the representing gallery's asking prices. If you discover, for example, that the artist's art sells in the hundreds and you're being asked to pay in the thousands, you'd better ask the gallery about the discrepancy. They may have a good reason; they may not. It's up to you to find out.

    ** Compare the gallery's asking prices to prices for similar works of art by artists who were also active in the same region during the same time period and who achieved similar degrees of recognition to this artist. As with real estate, evaluating "comps" (selling prices for similar pieces of property in the same neighborhood) is an important part of determining the fairness of an asking price. You want evidence that your artist-to-artist (property-to-property) prices are approximately in the same ballpark. If not, talk to the gallery and find out why.

    ** If you're on good speaking terms with other gallery owners, ask their opinions on this artist and his art. Consistent favorable responses generally mean go ahead and buy.

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