Colour wheel

Recently in a Facebook group of hobby amateur painters, someone posted a maybe average looking picture of a relatively well-known Hungarian painter of the 19 century, asking, why do such a picture costs so much at an auction, while in the group there are much better-looking art pieces. A fair question indeed for an average person, who likes art, but is not a collector or does not buy art or follow auction information. Let us have a look at how is a picture valued at all.

What determines the value of an artwork?

Here we will look at two aspects of value in art: the value of a picture from the color theory aspect and its value as a subject of the commercial object.

Value as Element of Art

Value is one of seven elements of art (next to line, shape, form, space, and texture). It is a function of the lightness or darkness of a color – essentially how light or dark something is on a scale of white to black (with white being the highest value and black being the lowest value). The reason for that is simply physical – we see objects and understand them because of how dark or light they are. Value is incredibly important to art. It is widely considered to be one of the most important variables to the success of a painting, even more so than the selection of color (hue). Artworks that exhibit a full range of value are generally more successful. It doesn’t matter the type of art – As long as there are dark values in harmony with light values, the artwork will most likely be aesthetically pleasing.

So professional artists are well educated about the value of colors, and their talent helps them to explore well this theoretical skill. The public though rarely analyses the value of a painting in such a way, they unconsciously visually evaluate it and react positively, if the values are rightly set.

The 1-10 Color Value Scale

Every color has an underlying value somewhere between white and black and for simplicity 1 being white – 10 being black, as not all colors are equal in terms of light and dark. Each color can have an individual value scale, with tints all the way up to white and shades all the way down to black.

As you can imagine, the colors have much more emotional importance in the painting, rather than structural. An artist can decide besides what colors to use, also what type of values to use.

While a full range of values seems the right choice, many artists, like Monet, prefer to utilize a limited range of values in their artworks. This can help promote harmony in the artworks, as it is easier to retain a level of consistency with just a limited value range.

Color theory was developed quite early and appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (c.1435) and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (c.1490). The first color wheel was developed by Sir Isaac Newton around the start of the 17th century. This color wheel was an arrangement of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet on a rotating disk. So the topic seems a good subject for exploration as it is strongly linked to physical and psychological areas, as art has an impact on both.

To explore more check:

The Transaction Value of an Art piece is Difficult to Predict

When you last bought a picture, could you evaluate easily, if the price paid is fair? What is a fair price and what impacts it?

While collectors may have their own area of interest and develop a deep understanding and knowledge about the topic, there is still a huge amount of emotional impact and personal value involved in what do they consider to be a good price.

Factors Impacting the Artwork Value

It is hard to establish fixed values for antiques, artworks, and other collectible items. The amount asked or offered is determined by the following factors in general:

  1. Condition is one of the most important factors in assessing value.
  2. Sales and acquisition history (provenance) of the object,
  3. Recent prices realized for similar works by the same artist
  4. Thematic factors are combined with creation date,
  5. Medium
  6. Size of the artwork
  7. Rarity is determined by the frequency with which a work by an artist appears on the market or the number of a specific type of work that is currently available from a particular period in an artist’s career.
  8. When combined with demand, rarity becomes very important in an appraisal.
  9. Supply – as a living artist can create, while there are a limited amount of pictures available if the author is dead

So for example works by an artist or from a specific era that appear often in public auction sales may achieve lower prices. This is most common when the style or genre falls from fashion, causing less demand. A work, that has appeared at auction more than once can be seen as “not fresh” representing so much lower value than a new work on the market. An artwork that appears at auction and fails to sell is considered “Bought-In.”

Insurance companies or sales appraisals may be more specific though. A collector might assign an artwork or design object a value based on a more emotional level. Important is to understand the background of an object and its current market to make a well-educated purchase. A long list of professional evaluation services is available, starting from websites, which track the value of artists and artwork.

Several PRICE GUIDES exist to help the professional collectors or more serious buyers:

  • International Society of Appraisers
  • ADEC: International Art Prices
    Art Sales Index
    Davenport’s Art Reference & Price Guide
    International Auction Records
    Leonard’s Annual Price Index of Art Auctions
  • For prints, check the following resources:
    Gordon’s Print Price Annual
    Contemporary Print Portfolio
    Lawrence’s Dealer Print Prices International

There are also ONLINE pricing recourses:

And of course, you can simply go to a gallery and talk to professional consultants there, as they will be for sure very knowledgeable about the value of an artwork, and will give you a piece of good advice.

Given the fact that there are many online art sales houses, you can do your own price research. There are also artwork marketplace platforms, where artists sell directly their work, determining their own price, cutting out the middle man. Nevertheless, if you are not professional, you should buy only if the personal aesthetic value is your key motivator and you are not buying as an investment.

The real experience is though visiting the atelier of a painter – and I am sure you will not leave without a piece of beautiful art, once you have seen it all and you have met the author.