The affordable-art paradox: Do reasonable prices make pieces of art less desirable?

Art fairs aimed at the masses, rather than wealthy collectors, are popular. What's the real value of the work sold?

Published March 19, 2017 6:00PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Tristan Fewings)
(Getty/Tristan Fewings)

Last week, London hosted its annual “Affordable Art Fair.” This has been a staple since 1999, with around a quarter-million visitors each year, and parallel fairs in 10 cities. The definition of “affordable” is works priced under 2500 GBP, with some sold for as little as 50. But while the prices are low, the quantity is high: The fair handles more than $400 million in sales. There is clearly a large market of people who want to own original, unique artworks but have what might be considered “normal” incomes. Most high-end art and antiquities are collected by a tiny minority of extremely wealthy individuals, institutions and families, a sort of private club of just a few hundred millionaires the world over, many of whose families have been collecting art for centuries. This clubby atmosphere is cultivated by galleries and auction houses. Having worked at Christie’s, and knowing the art world from behind the scenes, I can attest to the widespread proactive encouragement of this sense of exclusivity. One of the reasons online art sales have never caught on for high-end objects is the social element of collecting: seeing and being seen, catching up with old friends, popping over to Milan for the Sotheby’s sale, chatting about your latest purchase while poolside in St. Tropez, ostentatiously lending to the Met.

At the top level, art collecting has always been about two things: Demonstrating one’s erudition and showing off one’s wealth. This dates back to Renaissance patrons, princes and popes, who sought top artists to decorate chapels and palaces that were designed to give the owner pleasure, sure, but just as much to awe his guests.

While you won’t find Roman Abramovich or Bernard Arnault or Robbie Antonio (among Artnet’s top 10 collectors in the world) browsing the Affordable Art Fair stalls, I wondered how the price of art affects desirability at all levels, and also how living artists price their works, striking the balance between a price someone might actually pay and a price high enough to make a potential buyer feel that the artist is serious and desired.

In my book on art forgery, I proposed an equation for the value of art: value = perceived (rarity + authenticity + demand). Most art is unique, so rarity refers to how many works by an artist exist at all (Giorgione died young and made far fewer paintings than his contemporary Titian, so a Giorgione is far more valuable than a Titian). Authenticity is an issue for antiques and Old Masters, not usually a factor for the contemporary artists of the Affordable Art Fair. Demand, or the perception of it, is key to driving up the price. You need at least two people who really want to buy something, and the competition, particularly at auction, can make prices rise dramatically. The price for works by established artists is usually based on past sales — a Picasso with a similar provenance, importance, quality and size that sold a few decades ago will be compared to a Picasso newly on the market and, after inflation, an estimated price is chosen. But the category of museum-quality art and antiques is its own rarefied world, with a minuscule number of potential buyers functioning in a sociological bubble distinct from what might be called “normal folks.”

What about contemporary artists who might show at the Affordable Art Fair? To find out how artists pick their prices, I spoke to several. Painter Harry Hancock said, “Artists start by adding up materials and work hours — that becomes the base price, below which they are truly screwing themselves. But the intangible factors, such as virtuosity, originality, exclusivity, fame, talkability, can affect prices more dramatically.” But not all these factors work for all artists. Hancock continues, “I base my works’ value on what I consider the most solid pricing factors, like virtuosity and originality....  Virtuosity is extremely verifiable (it’s pretty clear when it’s not there) and enjoyable to look at.”

But fame is really the main driver. As Hancock says, “It holds a particular sway over art markets in our ‘recommendation culture.’” Name-recognition, either through the media or word-of-mouth within cadres of art collectors, surmounts all. There is a lot of art out there that does not display virtuosity that sells well, because some sort of buzz surrounds the artist. The million-dollar question, literally, is how to get that buzz, for with it comes fame, “talkability” (by which Hancock means a work of sufficient interest or shock value that it gets people talking), and the sense of exclusivity that prompts desire to own one of only a finite number of unique works by that artist.

Affordability is only really a factor for less-known artists, not established ones. Take Roman Uranjek, a famous artist, part of the IRWIN group, whose works feature in museum collections. He states, “My experience is that, in the art world, the name of the artist is a lot more important than the artwork itself. We live in the time of fetish, and the amount of sweat and tears put into the creation never represents the quality of the artworks, whereas the name of the artist does.” Uranjek is renowned enough that he never prices his own work, because he, like all top artists, sells through a gallery or manager. But this must be earned. “The real value of the artwork comes with time, and with the artist’s continuity.”

Prices for people who are likely to buy at the Affordable Art Fair must be low enough to strike a balance between desire prompted almost exclusively by initial aesthetic appeal, and a price point that feels doable. This sort of art is often wonderful, but it is usually a field of pleasant surprises. Buyers are unlikely to have heard of the artists showing there prior to seeing their work at the fair, and so the buzz is all but nonexistent. It is a starting point for artists who might hope to graduate into the “buzz zone,” but are not yet there — those not yet represented by galleries (which, by the way, regularly take 50 percent of the price for each work sold). This is a democratic, bricks-and-mortar pop-up art market, showcasing quality but artists little-to-unknown to the cultured masses.

Online galleries exist, trying to do something similar (like the new ArtOpen, which cleverly combines social media with art sales, as artists can upload their works, have them rated by other users, set a price and receive 100 percent of what they ask for). Painter Nika Zupancic sees a problem in the availability of high-resolution digital imagery. “Nowadays there is no desire to possess something that you can virtually possess any time.” Those who might buy affordable art sometimes content themselves with a digital image or print, rather than the real thing. But there is a world of difference between seeing art in person, versus online. It is far easier to fall in love, when admiring an object “in the flesh.” Which is why an art fair will always trump an art website, in encouraging sales.

I also spoke to two collectors about this issue, both of whom preferred to remain anonymous. One, who has an impressive collection of museum-quality works, valued in the low millions, said, “I think this is absolutely an issue, always has been, with the very best art by already famous artists, alive or long deceased. If I hear that a fellow collector (or a rival one) is interested, then my interest rises. We saw this as a proactive strategy with Saatchi. His enthusiasm for buying Young British Artists drew other collectors to them, afterwards driving up the price of the works he’d already bought. It’s like a run in the stock market. Then he sold high and moved on to young Chinese artists, with a similar effect.”

The other, who collects but with a normal-person, middle-class salary, and is particularly keen on mid-20th century lithographs (you can get lithographs by the likes of Dalí, Chagall and Miró for prices in the low thousands), said, “I’ll want something when I see it, and then I always have to look at the price tag. The higher price will make me think more of the artist, that they must have admirers, but won’t make me like the particular artwork more. It had me at hello, or it didn’t have me at all. My interest in the price is not incentive to buy, but fear of not being able to afford. That’s why the Affordable Art Fair is great for people like me, who like art but have to watch our pennies. I’ll know that nothing there will be impossible for me to acquire, so I can relax and feel comfortable falling in love with any work I see there.”

Art collecting must be divided into two halves for separate consideration. High price does encourage interest in the thin air of museum-quality sales and auctions. Back here on Earth, price gives the impression of an artist’s growing fame, but it does not encourage purchases, largely for the reason of the limited wallet-power of the potential buyer. In both worlds, price is equated with the (presumed) fame of the artist (a living artist can set very high prices and hope to impress), but in only one world does it encourage desire to own. For most, it’s about the initial aesthetic and emotional impact, with the price tag as an afterthought. As Harry Hancock says, “The Affordable Art Fair is great because it provides a venue for art that shows virtuosity and originality, but no fame.” It’s fame, in the end, that pays.

By Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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