When encountering artwork, people often ask some of the following questions. Who is the artist? When was it made? How was it made? What does it mean? There is, however, one other popular question regarding art that people of all ages and all backgrounds tend to ask: how much is it worth? This question is not as easy to answer as the preceding ones, because the answer depends on the intersection of three fluctuating elements: art collecting, art history and the art market.
Art collecting is the basic foundation for how values are assigned to artwork. Those who collect art include individual collectors, corporations and museums. While individual art collectors may pay the same high prices for artwork as corporations and museums, the function of these collections differs greatly. Most simply, individual art collectors collect for themselves, while corporate collectors and museums collect for their institutions and a public audience. Individual collectors may someday deposit their artwork into museums, but collecting categories tend to be more rigid in corporations and museums than for individual collectors.
These collecting categories are directly related to art history. It is art history that defines which artists and artwork are valuable to our society and are deserving of further study. In some sense, once a work of art becomes famous, its intrinsic value increases, as does its financial value. Art history, however, does not happen overnight. It is a process that involves weighing the impact an artist has had on the art world, based on exhibitions, reviews and influence on other artists.
Art history and art collecting together influence the art market. Although the art market depends on art history and encourages art collecting, the foundation of the art market stems from a basic economic rule: supply and demand. It may seem greatly disrespectful for the value of artwork to increase after an artist is deceased, but again, market value assignments depend on rarity. Once an artist is no longer living, the supply of their artwork becomes limited and their artwork increases in value.
This short essay does not fully answer the question it posed in the first paragraph regarding how value is assigned to artwork. It does, however, offer insight into the systems of art collecting, art history and the art market that together inform individuals, corporations and museums what artwork to buy and how much to pay. However, looking at financial value alone when determining the success of an artist is not sufficient.
A successful artist should have artwork in important museum and gallery exhibitions, as well as in museum and corporate collections. These factors are just as important to make an artist successful as the actual sales and again, demonstrate that art collecting, art history and the art market collectively and systematically answer the question, “How much is that art worth?”
Teresa M. DeChant, DeChant Art Consulting, LLC
Christina Larson, MA Case Western Reserve University