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How an Artist's Death Impacts Selling Prices:
Facts and Fictions
Q: I bought six paintings from a pretty well-known local artist over a twenty year period during his career. He's pretty old now and I'm starting to think about selling. When's the best time to do that? Should I wait until after he dies? Will I make more money that way?
A: That's a pretty mercenary question but unfortunately, people ask it all the time. The prevailing notion in many parts of artland is that art prices do go up when an artist dies, as if death trips some kind of mystical instant inflation switch. And it's a belief-- or should I let the proverbial cat out of the bag and say myth-- that's perpetuated in large part by greedy dealers and galleries, particularly in the commercial realm, who'll say anything to make a quick buck off of naive buyers. That's right... the answer in this artist's case and in the huge majority of cases out there is that an artist's death has little if any impact on the selling prices, dollar values or "investment potential" (I hate that phrase) of their art.
You see, most artists age gracefully over time and gradually taper off in terms of production as they get older. In fact, a significant number of artists stop making art altogether, sometimes well in advance of their departures to that great art studio in the sky. Increases in the values of their art take place slowly, sensibly, deliberately and in an orderly manner over decades, and anyone who understands the art market and who seriously follows the lives and careers of these artists understands that. Their eventual passings come as absolutely no surprise to anyone and consequently, there's no upheaval anywhere to be concerned about. Galleries continue selling, collectors continue buying, and prices continue doing whatever the were doing in the same orderly fashion as before the sad news.
Now there are isolated instances when death significantly impacts an artist's price structure, but a specific set of conditions must be in place for that to happen. First, the artist has to be relatively famous or well-known in certain circles, and their art has to be relatively expensive and in demand among collectors. Second-- and here's the biggie-- they have to die prematurely and unexpectedly, thereby catching the marketplace totally by surprise. When that happens, a sort of panic or temporary insanity sets in.
Basically, dealers and collectors get caught off guard, everyone scrambles for the artist's art and prices spike upward. Those upward spikes, far more often than not, are based on profiteering, greed, panic, ignorance, impulse, emotion, and people trying to get over on each other with "better buy now or else" fairytales. As for the facts of the matter, they take a temporary hiatus. In the months immediately following the deaths of Warhol and Basquiat, for example, their prices went through arbitrary and irrational phases before gradually settling back to sensibility. Even Warhol's personal effects were bid into the ionosphere at that famed 1987 Sotheby's auction, epitomized by buyers paying many thousands of dollars each for vintage cookie jars that under normal circumstances might have sold for $50 or $100 or so. These days, in fact, you can literally witness the "death effect" among buyers and sellers on websites like eBay when celebrities pass on or are heavily featured in the news for one reason or another. The profit vultures barf their memorabilia up for auction in hopes of making a quick buck while the body's still warm.
But wait; there's more. Just in case you're one of those multitudes who believe that art prices can only go up, there are certain instances when an artist's prices can actually drop when they pass away. For example, estate executors or family members may mismanage an artist's estate by dumping all the art on the market at once and as a result, temporarily depress prices because supply becomes significantly greater than demand. Another reason for a price drop is when collectors patronize an artist based more on personality, public profile, flamboyance, social contacts, or sales skills than for the quality of their art. With the artist's number one promoter gone-- namely the artist-- their art prices fall flat. A case in point would be that of Pascal Cucaro, a colorful San Francisco artist whose prices topped out in the range of $50,000 while he was at his peak in the 1950s and 1960s, whereas today, prices for his paintings typically hover in the low to mid hundreds of dollars, only occasionally surpassing the $1000 mark.
So getting back to you and your financial planning, your main concern with respect to the paintings you own might be whether the artist's family or executors are planning on liquidating large portions of his work within a reasonably short period after his death. Chances of this happening are remote, but if it'll make you sleep better at night, check with dealers or others who either represent or are close to the artist and get their prognosis on the situation. Or if you're feeling exceptionally rude, ask the artist himself. Enjoy your profits.