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What Makes Art Sell? 10 Questions That Establish the Value of a Painting

Two years ago a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream fetched $120 million at auction. Last year a Francis Bacon portrait reached $143 million. To the outside world, the pricing of art is a mystery.
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Two years ago a version of Edvard Munch's The Scream fetched $120 million at auction. Last year a Francis Bacon portrait reached $143 million. To the outside world, the pricing of art is a mystery. Why does one work sell for $10,000, another for $1 million, and yet another for $100 million? I have drawn together various strands from my book Breakfast at Sotheby's: An A-Z of the Art World (Published by The Overlook Press, October 2014) to formulate the 10 questions you need to answer to establish the value of a painting.

1. Is it authentic?

A fairly obvious question, I know, but there are degrees of authenticity. An out and out fake is of interest to no-one but the student of crime; but sometimes the possibility that an unsigned work in -- say -- Rembrandt's style could be genuine gives it an extra romance and fantasy, and can up the price, even though its status remains unproven. Conversely you can buy a work that is attested by the relevant experts to be by Rembrandt and 10 years later find it has been downgraded by a new group of relevant experts to being the work of a follower. Financially this is a disappointing experience.

2. Is the artist fashionable?

Artists go in and out of fashion, but there are broader shifts in taste that affect the market. Forty years ago the highest prices were achieved by Old Masters. Today a lot of glamour and demand is focused on Modern and Contemporary art. Even ten years ago the highest auction price for Francis Bacon stood at $8.5m. In November one sold for $143 million.

3. How important is the artist in art history?

Some artists are eternal. It is hard to imagine art history ever downgrading the importance of Rembrandt or Rubens, Leonardo or Raphael, Picasso or Matisse. They will always be valuable. But in recent years artists such as the Surrealists and the German Expressionists have grown more expensive as their art historical importance has been re-assessed. Similarly, if the artist has just featured in a major exhibition at - say - the Tate, then that kind of high-profile exposure can also create a spike in their prices.

4. Does the artist have positive romantic baggage?

There is a back-story to artists' lives that affects our appreciation of them and the works they produce, a romance made up of the glamour and myth of artistic creation. Other positives in an artist's life story: unhappy love-affairs; close attachment to specific easy-on-the-eye 'muses'; madness (but not illness, which buyers subliminally associate with a fall-off in quality); rebellious behavior and even spells in jail. Dying young is not a bad career move either. For example, quite apart from the art historical importance of Van Gogh and his significance as the originator of Expressionism, there is a tragic romance to his life that enhances his value to the collector both emotionally and financially.

5. Is the painting from a desirable phase in the artist's development?

Some periods of an artist's career are more desirable than others. Late Van Gogh is more expensive than his early work. A Renoir from the 1870s will be worth more than a late one. Any Picasso is desirable, but one from the early 1930s particularly so.

6. Is it typical?

The market prizes high recognisability. You want the Monet you have just splashed out on to be immediately obvious as a Monet to visitors to your drawing room. Thus a painting showing waterlilies or Rouen Cathedral will be more expensive than a less typical portrait or still life by the artist.

7. Has the painting got wall-power?

It's important to assess if it's got the impact that make people want to own it. This is a matter of factors such as composition, color (blue, and particularly red, tend to be good news), and emotional power. Surpassing artistic quality (difficult to define, but you know it when you see it) is always reflected positively in the price a work of art realizes, sometimes by an astonishing margin. A good example of an artist's work may fetch $10,000; but a superlative one could spiral off the dial and make $100,000.

8. What's its subject?

In traditional painting, some subjects are definitely more desirable than others: portraits of pretty women will always sell better than those of gloomy old men; sunny landscapes are more expensive than dark ones, and calm seas preferable to rough ones; animals and birds are generally more expensive if you can shoot them, but they should preferably be depicted alive because in general death in a painting is bad news.

Nudes, provided the models are beautiful, sell well (but they can be difficult for some Islamic buyers, an important consideration in today's market). Biblical subjects are out of fashion. But a major work by a great master has the capacity to transcend all rules. In 2004 Sotheby's sold a Rubens of The Massacre of the Innocents. As a scene of mass infanticide it was not immediately promising material, but it made $75 million.

9. Is it in good condition?

Paintings suffer and age over time, some more than others. Like human beings, some are subjected to cosmetic surgery. Where this has been too extensive, the price of the painting will be affected, although -- as with human beings -- such judgments cannot always be made by the naked eye.

10. What's its provenance?

The history of the painting itself can make a difference to its value: whose collection it's been in, where it's been exhibited, which dealers have handled it. A Cezanne from the great Paul Mellon collection is worth more than the same painting with an unspecified provenance. Conversely, the name of Field Marshal Goering in the list of previous owners of your picture -- even if he came by it legally -- isn't necessarily a bonus.