Just what is it that makes today’s art so valuable, so appealing?

According to the 2018 Basel art market report, in 2017 sales in the global art market reached $63.7 billion (+11.9 % compared to 2016). But how do you prize a work of art? What is it that makes art so valuable? Of course, valuation is a complicated exercise and it can’t always be definite. But here are 10 criteria that must be considered when appraising a work of art.


1. Authenticity

The authenticity can be proved by the artist himself, the artist’s studio or by specific foundations in charge of examining new pieces and eventually releasing a certificate of authenticity. Nowadays however many studios don’t release a paper copy of the certification because of how easy they are to falsify. All the recognized works by an artist are listed in his Catalogue Raisonnes, a describing catalogue completed with explanations and a scholarly comment. It includes the artist opera omnia and the history of every piece.

Unfortunately, many modern works remain unsigned, but the style of old masters is recognizable, and they signed their works in every brushstroke. A team of experts, with a little help from technology, can recognize a certain hand in the way the author painted someone’s hair or for example highlighted some specific facial trait. This happened for instance in 2002 with “Massacre of the innocents” by Rubens, that had been wrongly attributed to Jean Van de Hoe, and ultimately recognized just moments before being put on auction by comparing it with another Rubens’ masterpiece “Samson and Delilah”. Other researches can be made on the canvases and on the papers and sometimes a very peculiar smell test even exists for the art that was displayed in Asian temples, to see if it has a scent of yak butter and incense.


2. Condition

Condition is the state of preservation of the object and could impact its value tremendously.  Every time a work of art is sold, a condition report must therefore be attached. The “poor” Mr.  Wynn is a living proof of this. In 2006 he agreed to sell his “le Rêve” from Picasso for 139 million dollars, the highest price ever reached for a work of art at that time. Unfortunately, when he was showing the picture to his friend, he put his right elbow through the canvas causing a 15 cm tear. After a 90.000 dollars restoration the painting was valued again at 85 million dollars, hence losing almost 40% of its value. It should be emphasized that not every work of art is sold in perfect conditions. Usually old masters paintings are sold untouched and unrestored, so the new buyer can decide how much it want the objects to look new. However, selling a dirty canvas could mean that the objects become new on the market, so that the painting, that was in some way forgotten, gets rediscovered just for the sale, which makes it even more valuable and desirable. Besides, let’s be honest, a Rembrandt is still a Rembrandt even covered in dust.


3. Rarity

Rarity is the ultimate prize, but a rare object is not necessarily a great object and great ones don’t necessarily have to be rare. For example, artists such as Hirst, Koons, Warhol and Calder were (or are) extremely prolific, but it just so happens that people seem to always want a work by them. When on auction, art, and especially old masters art, is sold and desired based on the fact that the number of works on the market will necessarily decrease so, combined with demand, rarity becomes very important in appraisal.


4. Provenance

Provenance is the history of ownership of the work of art, who was it made for, whose wall was it hung on and sometime this story can be more interesting than the work itself. One of the most famous examples is Rothko’s “White Center” (now known as the Rockefellers Rothko). It was estimated at a price of 40 million dollars but ultimately achieved a staggering 72 million sale. It is even important to consider whether the work was sold by important gallerists and dealers such as Leo Castelli in New Yok. Another emblematic example is the Calder sculpture from about 1942 that had been owned by Alfred Barr, the founding director of the MoMA, since the artist himself gave it to him after a 25 years-long correspondence.


5. Historical importance

The historical importance of a work derives from the day, from the moment that it was created: it is not about its life after birth but rather the circumstances of that birth that matter.  This is important for examples for the Italian futurists, since the images they were creating are so linked to the world surrounding them. We can appreciate them because they represent the human reaction to something that was completely unknown at that time and had a strong impact on the society. Same for the photographs of the 19thcentury, because those are art but historical documents too. Everything could be considered as a time capsule. A Picasso made in Paris in 1939 will entice us to think about the context in terms of European history. The seals made for the Kangxi Emperor, who was the longest living monarch in the history of China and the most powerful human being on earth in his lifetime, have a physical value of maybe a few hundred thousand dollars but have been sold for 10 million dollars because of their historical value as symbols of the power of this Emperor.


6. Size

Does size matter? Definitely yes and it works both ways. There are some artists that you can basically buy the squaring, which means the bigger the better.  People do want statement pieces   and they don’t want to have to buy five pieces of art to fill their walls. Some works can be extremely big. In jargon these works are called “Park Avenue Doorway Size” and this can affect the value negatively because it restricts the pool of potential buyers simply because not everyone owns a big enough space to display them. As we said, this criterion works both ways. Francis Bacon, for instance, used to work just with two sizes, a monumental one and an intimate portrait one. Quite frequently the small paintings are valued higher than the larger ones.


7. Fashion

Fashion styles do change but can always be back, making it difficult to identify a specific causality. Moreover, some pieces such as Warhol’s never get out of style. Fashion influences the prices of many contemporary artists who had high peaks and now can’t achieve the 10k dollar quote. Fashion is mostly influenced by shows, auction world records and exhibitions. If an artist has had or is about to have a mayor retrospective or monographic exhibition it is very possible that his/her value will rise. An artist like Zarina Hashmi had a show at the Guggenheim and she’s now considered one of the most wanted south Asian artists. That is why collectors should always buy something they are moved by.  Because fashion might change but hopefully personal tastes will remain the same.


8. Subject

Some subjects are simply more appealing than others, just as colors are. Some particular colors (e.g. Fontana’s red painting) sell better than others. Chinese buyers love peaches because they are the symbol of long life, just as much as they appreciate dragons. Identifying the subjects is clearly more difficult if we consider post war and contemporary art where often the lack of subjects becomes essential. But there are always exceptions. Rothko is a good example because, despite the lack of figurative subjects his paintings, especially in certain colors, remain captivating. And this is a major challenge for contemporary art. Another difficulty comes with catholic modern art when the painters were forced to paint subjects that had already been painted thousands of times obeying to regulations that have been set down by their patrons, the Church etc. Hieronymus Bosch for instance used the vocation of Saint Antony as an excuse to paint all the crazy monsters and weird visions that make his style recognizable and desired.


9. Medium

Medium is what the artist used to create the work. On that specific criterion, we tend to consider an unwritten hierarchy. In sculpture for instance we have marble which is directly being touched by the master, bronze which is casted from a model made by the artist etc.  For painting, the classic combo oil on canvas is the most valuable as these are also among the most durable media. Therefore, this implicit hierarchy is based on a practical aspect too.  In photography we usually have silver gelatin prints and platinum gelatins print. For instance, on the market of Sebastiao Salgado, that uses mostly silver gelatin prints, platinum prints are sold for a lot more.  This chart is very artist-influenced. Some artists, such as Jean Michelle Basquiat, worked just as well on paper as they did on canvas, and this is reflected in their prices. Degas tends to be more expressive in his sketches made with pastels on papers and sometimes they ended up being more valuable than the actual paintings.


10. Quality

Quality is the magical element, it is what you feel when you stand in front of a work of art. It is the beauty in the perfection, in the color, in the shape, in the lines. It is something you instinctively feel, and it is of course the most subjective of all the criteria because it determines the value the work of art has for the collector.


Apprising art is ultimately very tricky and complicated as it is very difficult to know how these criteria should be combined. To have a general idea about a specific artist it is smart to check on auctions house websites, where the auctions results are available for free, or get an account on artpice, a website that keeps records of all the sales.

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