The Artful Collector: Art Hierarchies #8: Art by Someone Known Is Better than Art by Someone Unknown (even if the art is good)

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Michael Whelan "Cuckoo's Egg" paperback cover, purchased 1988 from the artist
Michael Whelan “Cuckoo’s Egg” cover, purchased 1988 from the artist, $5000. Sold 2008 for $5975.  After 20 years, that’s called a loss – not breaking even – but we call it having fun.

You have two works of art in front of you:  One you know nothing about; the other you know a whole lot about.  They may be the same price, the same size, and in fact you may like them equally well.  You can buy either one or the other, but not both.  Which one would you rather buy?  Right.  The one you know a whole lot about.  Why?  Because the more information and background that accompanies a work of art, whether it’s about the work itself, or its creator, the more desirable it will be for the purposes of exhibition, and the more attractive it will be to future buyers.  And the more attractive it is, the easier it will be to display and sell.

For the purposes of this discussion I am talking about 2-D original art (not prints/reproductions) but in general this hierarchical distinction can be applied to any art, regardless of media.  You want to own art you know a whole lot about, vs. art that you (or others) can say little or nothing about.

A Signature is not Enough

Signatures on original artwork are very important, but that’s not enough – or even the kind of – information I’m talking about.  The kind of “signed” art you see in furniture stores, department stores or even sometimes public spaces like restaurants, is signed (for example) but it’s not exactly “original art”.  It’s produced by human hands, but often in a factory-like setting, massed produced, with the scenes painted according to ‘formula’.  There are also similarly produced paintings that involve one person painting the trees, and the another person painting the clouds, and so on . . . a system that results in an ‘original’ that is signed, but the signature, if not invented, is meaningless.  These sorts of generic paintings, whether landscapes, cityscapes, or seascapes, are certainly originals, but they are not considered “originals” in terms of value.  And nothing can be known about them beyond what you see. The sort of ranking that results in greater or lesser value being placed on art depending on the relative fame of the artist is really confined to art that is not mass produced in any way.  And it can span everything from works whose creator is (literally) unknown – as in “who did that?” to works by artists whose works are not in demand, whose reputation is not yet set, whose status in the art world is low or non-existent.

Rising vs. Already Risen, Artists

You can find good – even great – original art in a wide range of places.  Art galleries (I’d steer clear of shopping malls and cruise ships) and Art shows, are obvious places to find it.  And before artists are well-known, you can also often buy their work directly from their studios, or from smaller consignment-type stores or local fairs and exhibits put on by local Craft or Art Clubs.  The challenge comes not in finding good art – but in deciding what criteria to apply in selecting it, and what you want to spend your money on.

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Michael Whelan “Werewolf” Purchased for $45. at Boskone, 1978. Artist listed himself as “amateur” on the bidsheet.  NFS!

Rising artists – also called “emerging” artists – are those who are at the beginning of their careers, who haven’t made ‘a name’ for themselves yet.  The main advantage in buying from such “unknown” artists is that the price is bound to lower . . . because when you buy art from established, mature, “known” artists, you are – essentially – partially paying a premium for their success.  Put another way (the reverse argument) the lower price you pay for “unknowns” is a reflection of their lack of fame. See Whelan’s “Werewolf,” 1978.

By 1988, ten years later, Whelan’s star had risen to the point that we were willing to pay $5,000 for his “Cuckoo’s Egg”.  It wasn’t the BEST he could do, and we knew when we bought it that the subject matter would turn some people off.  Nevertheless we bought it.  Ten years after that, 1998, we bought “Fighting Man of Mars” from another collector. We sold “Cuckoo’s Egg” for less than we could have made putting our money in a CD, but we wouldn’t have had as much fun.  And we had better luck on “Fighting Man of Mars” which we bought for $8500. and sold for more than $20,000.  The Burroughs connection didn’t hurt 🙂

Everyone who collects art will tell you: don’t buy art because you want to make money from it, buy something that has emotional resonance  (even if the emotion is not positive), that has meaning, that “makes a statement”, that is captivating, that handles the subject matter/theme in an unusual way.  What they won’t tell you is that even if the art passes those hurdles, only a tiny percent of the artists will become internationally, or even nationally “known” – which is why buying art from “rising” artists is such a gamble.  So few artists reach that level of recognition, that buying art from an unknown artist is a more risky investment than buying art from an artist whose reputation and status is already assured.  Sure, after a period of time, if you have chosen well, there is a possibility that the artist you’ve chosen will gain local or regional, if not national or international, acclaim and other collectors – hearing of their success and popularity – will also want their works.  For that reason, many collectors enjoy hunting for emerging artists with great talent, hoping to snap up their art on the speculation that they will one day become “known.”

Other collectors, hedging their bets (you might say) and for all the above reasons (risk, and lack of information) will only choose to acquire what we call “vetted art”.  For many collectors of SF art, this means the piece has changed hands at least once, and preferably in a public venue (such as auction) so that the secondary market value has been established. This is not a guarantee that at the next “turn” (next time it is offered for sale, and sold) that the price

Michael Whelan "Warlord of Mars" cover purchased 1998 for $8500, sold 2008 for $20K
Michael Whelan “Warlord of Mars” cover purchased 1998 for $8500, sold 2008 for $20K

won’t be less.  But it does establish that someone beyond you has been willing and able to buy it – a second time.   The larger and more well-developed an artists’ secondary market, the greater the chances that the work will increase in value.

But in the art world, “vetting” goes way beyond one’s faith in the price.  To VET something (verb) means to make a careful and critical examination of something.  In this case, art. And inevitably, vetting requires information, knowledge about the artist and the art.  This is how “known” paintings by “known” artists come to be valued more highly.

What is Relevant, and What it Means to be “Known”

What kind of information does “vetting” supply? The basic three are: authenticity, date and condition.

When you buy from a well-known, world-recognized auction house, or a major art or antiques fair, or a well-known dealer or gallerist, you expect those basics to be supplied. Artworks by known artists are scrutinized, studied, and examined.  The artists themselves receive reviews from scholars and critics; their works are reproduced in art books and discussed in print.  Without ever seeing the art in person, or ever meeting the artist, the artwork carries information about medium, substrate, dimensions, date created and/or source of publication (if illustration art).  If the artist is known in their field, you can learn about their techniques, their favored medium, their method of painting simply by googling their name.

One demonstration of this would be the vetting process required for all contemporary works accepted for exhibition and sale at one of the world’s best, the annual Fine Art and Antiques Fair, at The Olympia Exhibition Centre in London, England.  Vetting for the show is carried out by 100+ experts, including dealers, restorers and auction house specialists, broken down into 32 committees, by specialty.  In addition to stipulating that “. . . all exhibits must be of an appropriate quality and in the spirit of the Fair,” their rules state that “Contemporary work will only be allowed to be exhibited if the artist and his/her work satisfy the following criteria:

(a) They are internationally recognised and established and/or;
(b) They are represented in internationally renowned museums and collections and/or;
(c) They belong to an established school or art movement, and the work of art has been created in the period in which it would appear to have been created and/or;
(d) They have a proven market value and/or;
(e) They are represented in the relevant literature.

People who are used to seeing the prices of fan art at genre conventions, or art by unknown/hobbyist artists on eBay, for example, which sell for very little, are shocked by the prices commanded by known artists in the SF field.  But even artists who once were “on the way to being known” can drop from consciousness, become “forgotten” and therefore unknown artists, if they leave the field, drop out, die early, produce too few works that are memorable, or ‘play the field’, i.e., work in too many markets to become well-known in any one of them.  I can list artists in all of these categories, and the value of their art (despite relatively high quality) suffers for it.

If you are a risk-taker, and can afford to take the chance, and have a ‘good eye’ then in time buying the art of ‘unknowns’ can be rewarding.  But in the larger art world, the message is clear: it’s safer to buy the best you can afford by the most well-known artists in your field of collecting.

If you have $10,000 to spend should you buy 10 paintings by “unknowns” for $1000 each, artists whose names aren’t known by anyone in the SF art collecting world, or one older, “lesser” painting by Michael Whelan, for $10,000?  If you want to take a chance, and love the art, and can afford to lose two-thirds or more of that $10K over the course of 20 years (or maybe end up picking a big winner), then be a gambler.  If you’re going to need that $10,000 for your retirement, then buying even secondary art by famous artists will be safer – given that a rising tide will float all boats.  See Frazetta as demonstration of that – the higher his finished paintings go, the more value put on his prelims and sketches  🙂

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