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section heading icon     values and valuation

This page considers the art valuation game.

It covers -

It is complemented by a page highlighting sources of data regarding nominal prices, purchasing power, wages and inflation in different eras and markets.


What do the prices highlighted in the following pages (and in other parts of this site) mean? Can values assigned by appraisal specialists be trusted? What principles are used in appraisal of a Rembrandt oil, kitsch by Jeff Koons and Pro Hart, a unique gold coin from 846 AD or the 'Little Black Dress' worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's?

This note offers figures for the sale of selected artworks and other collectibles since the 1850s, with some of the more naive (or merely self-serving) enthusiasts claiming that prices have consistently gone up in the past and will do so in the future.

That is of course incorrect, as repeat sales of the Pre-Raphaelites and landmark works such as Rembrandt's 1653 Aristotle Contemplating A Bust of Homer demonstrate that prices can fall in the long term and short term. Edward Burne-Jones' Love and the Pilgrim (1896) for example, fetched £5,775 in 1898, £210 in 1933 and £21 in 1942. Rembrandt's Aristotle was famously bought by Erickson for US$750,000 in 1928, sold back to Duveen for US$500,000, reacquired in 1936 for US$590,000 and being sold to the Met for US$2.3 million in 1961.

More importantly, the figures in the following pages are nominal: they do not offer a true indication of purchasing power. A few hundred guineas in the 1780s might be the equivalent of millions of dollars in the 1980s.

In terms of real rather than nominal prices the sums paid by fin-de-siecle magnates such as JP Morgan, Frick, Kress, Altman and Huntington for Georgian and Quattrocento paintings surpass contemporary landmarks. From the same perspective splurging in the 1890s on 'investment quality' art from now-forgotten figures by Makart, Carolus-Duran, Friant and Meissonier rather than contemporaries such as Monet and Manet seems foolish. (One might wonder whether the US$23.6 million paid for Jeff Koons's kitsch hot-pink stainless-steel Hanging Heart in 2007 - an echo of the 6,300 guineas paid for Edwin Long's Babylonian Marriage Market in 1882 - will look bizarre in 50, 100 or even 10 years time.)

It is a truism that a commodity is worth what a buyer will pay for it, rather than a value assigned by a critic. Given the influence of behavioural finance and perceptions of rationality what a buyer will pay is influenced by assessments from critics and from professional appraisal specialists. One reason why people followed the 'wisdom of crowds' (as articulated by contemporary academic authorities and critics) in buying - or not buying - works by Alma-Tadema, Cézanne, Sweerts, Vermeer and Cossington Smith - was that they were sensible.

Another reason is that they were uncommitted, without a passion for a particular genre, school or artist and thus free to follow the herd. Saleroom price records, like much history, are about winners - losers tend to be invisible except as point of reference for anointing prescience or good fortune.

A third reason, highlighted by David Lee, is that many prices during the art bubble in 2007 reflected support through dealers buying their own work -

The whole thing smells of people trying to manipulate the market and push up prices. It's not about art. The kind of antics in the art world wouldn't be tolerated in any other industry. It's all about keeping yourself visible and your profile high. The people who get themselves in the press and on TV are the ones who command the highest prices. It's got nothing to do with art.

     how much was it worth?

Determining past purchasing values is notoriously difficult. Points of entry into literature on prices, incomes and purchasing power include John McCusker's How much is that in real money?: a historical price index for use as a deflator of money values in the economy of the United States (Worcester: American Antiquarian Society 2001) and Brian Mitchell's European historical statistics, 1750-1975 (London: Macmillan 1980).

EH.Net offers indicators of the comparative value of US money - Purchasing Power of the Dollar, 1665 - Present and What is the Relative Value? Five Ways to Compare the Worth of a United States Dollar, 1789 - Present - along with indicators of the purchasing power of the UK pound 1264-2002, UK average earnings and prices 1264-2002 and the annual real and nominal GDP for the UK 1086-2000.

For a European converter prior to 1700 see the Marteau project's Early 18th-Century Currency Converter. The UC Davis Agricultural History Center site features data for several foodstuffs and non-foodstuffs for Istanbul 1469-1914, prices in Paris 1500-1870 and some prices and wages in Spain 1500-1800. There is no online value converter for Australia and New Zealand.

More vivid illustrations of value are provided by some micro-histories.

Fran Beauman in The Pineapple, King of Fruits (London: Chatto & Windus 2005) for example notes that once all the expenses of a glasshouse, a stove (and associated garden boy to tend it full-time) and a stock of costly pineapple plants are considered the cost of a single English-raised pineapple in the second half of the eighteenth century was about £80 (perhaps £5,000 in today's money). For the same money an art lover could buy a Canaletto, with change left over for a Vermeer or two.

At a more elevated level insights are offered by Mary Hollingsworth's analysis in The Cardinal’s Hat: Money, Ambition and Housekeeping in a Renaissance Court (London: Profile 2004) of the account books of Renaissance grandee Ippolito d'Este, party animal and second son of Lucretia Borgia, in Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics & Art in 15th Century Florence (London: Profile 2006) by Tim Parks and Shopping in the Renaissance (New Haven: Yale Uni Press 2005) by Evelyn Welch.

Academics have tried to deconstruct sale prices, productivity and quality. Leading examples are David Galenson's Quantifying Artistic Success: Ranking French Painters - and Paintings - from Impressionism to Cubism paper, 2005 Who Are the Greatest Living Artists? The View from the Auction Market paper, The Greatest Artists of the Twentieth Century paper and Sebastian Edwards' 'The Economics of Latin American Art: Creativity Patterns and Rates of Return' in 4(2) Economía 2004.


Appraisal is an inexact art, rather than a science, particularly for items that are unique, are thinly traded or that attract little interest outside a particular jurisdiction (eg there is little demand in Tokyo for Hans Heysen and for Tom Thomson) or speciality (eg early surgical tools).

It is complicated by the muddiness of much reported data and by the absence of public information about sales below the US$100,000 and $10,000 thresholds.

Appraisal is largely based on a sense of what works by the same artist (or that creator's peers) have gone for in the past and attributes such as -

  • conservation status of the work (does it need restoration? has it obviously been restored?)
  • provenance and other indications of authenticity
  • perceived significance or uniqueness
  • validation by independent scholars (eg discussion in an academic monograph, in a catalogue raisonne or a major article)
  • validation through past sales (eg appearance in the catalogue issued by a major auction house or by a prestigious dealer) or through inclusion in an exhibition by a recognised art museum
  • 'market fit' (eg 'chocolate box' images by particular artists have greater "wall power" and sell more quickly than their more austere work)
  • questions of display and portability (watercolours and pastels for example may be exquisite but adversely affected by sunlight or contact; many collectors don’t have the acreage required to display a 4 metre by 5 metre postmodern canvas, a maquette is more portable than a large scale sculpture by Rodin or Serra)

and externals such as stock market crashes, credit squeezes, impending wars and media criticism of conspicuous consumption by executives.

Tyler Cowan waspishly commented that

  • Landscapes can triple in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground. Evidence of industry usually lowers a picture’s value.
  • A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit. Roses stand at the top of the flower hierarchy. Chrysanthemums and lupines (seen as working class) stand at the bottom.
  • There is a price hierarchy for animals. Purebred dogs help a picture more than mongrels do. Spaniels are worth more than collies. Racehorses are worth more than carthorses. When it comes to game birds the following rule of thumb holds: the more expensive it is to shoot the bird, the more the bird adds to the value of the painting. A grouse is worth more than a mallard, and the painter should show the animal from the front, not the back.
  • Water adds value to a picture, but only if it is calm. Shipwrecks are a no-no.
  • Round and oval works are extremely unpopular with buyers.

Tax regimes typically feature some requirement for a formal appraisal of gifts that involve tax concessions (for example to an public art museum or a foundation) greater than a particular level, eg US$5,000 in the US. Most such requirements centre on the price a willing buyer would pay to a willing seller, recent sales of similar assets or the cost to reproduce the item (if the latter is an accurate representation of fair market value).

Appraisal similarly features in estate planning, divorce and insurance arrangements.

Most regimes restrict appraisals for official purposes (eg for tax deductible donation of works to public art museums) to registered valuers. The Australian register in relation to the national Cultural Gifts Program, for example, is here.

Questions of appraisal are discussed in Art in the Courtroom (Westport: Greenwood 1998) edited by Vilis Inde, Artful Ownership: Art Law, Valuation, and Commerce in the United States, Canada & Mexico (Washington: American Society of Appraisers 2000) by Aaron Milrad.

A point of reference is provided by the discussion of domain name valuation here.

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version of November 2007
© Bruce Arnold
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