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Is an Artist Only Appreciated After He Dies?

The concept of the starving artist whose death gives his or her works new life is more mystique than truth.
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Someone important must have said that "an artist is only appreciated after he is dead" -- it is quoted enough to have come out of the Bible. Whatever the source, it exists as a truism of the life of the artist and of the art market as well.

Certainly, the truism applies to some quite important artists, for instance, Gauguin and van Gogh. Both 19th century French painters were outcasts socially, and their artwork was held in even greater contempt. At their deaths, they were both penniless, lonely and isolated figures, shouting out their messages to the world but not even hearing an echo.

True recognition followed these painters' deaths, as their works began to sell and their names found a place in the history of art, and it has led to the drawing of a bizarre conclusion: Art must naturally become more valuable after the artist's death.

"I would have to say that a deathwatch does exist for many older artists," Robert Schonfeld, a private art dealer and one-time head of the appraisal department at Sotheby's auction house, said. "All dealers and collectors anticipate changes in circumstances that make works more available or more valuable."

The concern with an artist's age does frequently lead collectors to start hording, or buying up, works by artists who are getting on in years or who are in poor health.

However, the concept of the starving artist whose death gives his or her works new life is more mystique than truth. In a few, very rare instances do works immediately go up in value. In some cases, prices go up gradually (or eventually). In general, demand drops and the prices go with it.

Take, for example, Ivan Albright (1897-1983) and Philip Evergood (1901-75), well-known artists in their time and for whom prices have never equalled those of their lifetimes. Another example is Bernard Karfiol (1886-1952), a Hungarian-born American painter who was a darling of the Whitney Museum in its early days. However, after he died, everything came to a standstill. There are many others.

Most artists who were ignored during their lives remain so in death. Even well-known artists, with reputations and critical acclaim during their lives, are soon forgotten. Often, the reputation and fame rested on what was perceived as a potential for doing something great -- after they are dead, the potential is lost and they will only be judged by the works they have done. Sometimes, the reputations are based on the artists themselves for whom the sale of their art and their selling it are part and parcel, similar to a publicity tour for an author -- without the artist, the works may just not sell. Fame, like popcorn, is lightweight stuff filled with air.

The factors determining whether prices will go up or down are much the same when an artist is dead or alive. They include the degree to which the market of an artist's work is controlled, changes in critical and popular appreciation, the manner in which dealers, heirs or estate executors handle works in their possession and how collectors behave.
One of these factors is to keep the deceased artist's work in the public eye in order to maintain or improve prices. If the dealer does not continue to promote the artist, or there are no subsequent exhibitions, the market may fall apart. Changing tastes of the art buying public may also affect demand.

Another factor is how the artist's estate is handled. Lee Krasner, who managed her husband Jackson Pollock's estate until her death in 1984, provided an even flow of works onto the market in order to keep prices high and maintain a scarcity. The estates of painters Milton Avery and Philip Guston were also handled in this way.

On the other hand, the estate of Mark Rothko (1903-70) was handled in a particularly egregious manner, resulting in a major art world law suit that removed the executors. With Rothko, a leader in the chromatic school of abstract expressionism, his death created far more excitement than his life but, unfortunately, in a way that depressed the prices of his works for a number of years.

Artists often own the largest collection of their own works -- partly because they couldn't sell them and partly because they didn't want to (both of which were unfortunately the case with sculptor David Smith) -- and heirs sometimes make mistakes with this vast quantity of pieces. The widows of sculptors Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) and Julio Gonzalez (1876-1942) inadvertently hurt the market for their late husbands' works when they began recasting their pieces -- failing to keep good records on how many reproductions were made in Epstein's case, failing to label the recasts as posthumous with Gonzalez. The families of painters Raoul Dufy (1877-1953) and Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) helped depress the prices for their paintings by dumping a large number of them onto the market after their deaths.
Not only heirs but collectors, too, may flood the market upon the death of an artist, assuming a large jump in prices. Riehlman noted that Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) paintings and prints as well as many of Alexander Calder's (1898-1976) pictorial works went down by 15-20 percent for a period of years following their deaths because of a flood of their pictures coming onto the market.

The prices for Josef Albers' (1888-1976) paintings also fell shortly after his death as "the market became flooded with collectors trying to sell the 'Homage to the Square,'" Nicholas Webber, director of the Josef Albers Foundation, said. "Everyone saw that there were going to be an endless number of 'Homages' on the market, and it cut the prices dramatically."
It is more likely that an artist's work will go up in value after he dies if the market for pieces is already strong and there is some sort of waiting list. When Robert Smithson, an environmental artist, died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of 35, the sudden realization of the rarity of his drawings created a tremendous jump in prices for them.

Usually, the opposite happens. It is not uncommon for auction houses to refuse to handle certain artists whom, they feel, will not sell, and this may increase their obscurity.
Auction houses, however, are avid obituary page readers -- not looking for artists but collectors. Estate sales count for most pieces being brought to auction, by heirs looking to pay the inheritance tax, and auctioneers try to make contact with the families or executors of the deceased as soon as possible. In the art world, and for the auction houses alone, this may be the only deathwatch that is sure to pay off.