Trends Market Features United Kingdom

Why some pictures go for more than others

All other things being equal, a grouse sells for more than a duck, roses beat lupins and everyone loves a pretty woman

Terrier vs collie: John Emms’ Hester Sorrel sold for $20,000 at Bonhams and Butterfields on 30 March (left); while Carl Richaert’s An English Collie made just $2,250. While Emms is the better-known artist and the dog is named (also a plus), the price difference was partly because of the breed shown

This article originally appeared in our May 2004 issue.

Picasso's Boy with a Pipe”, for sale on 5 May 2004 at Sotheby's New York with an estimate of over $70 million, has all the ingredients that determine market value in a work of art: it is by a great artist, it dates from his rare, highly sought-after Rose period, its provenance is great (from the prestigious Whitney collection) and it is in excellent condition. It now remains to be seen whether it can set the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.

The subject matter adds further to the painting's appeal. Extraordinary as it may seem, the subject of a painting, its colour and even its shape can have a drastic effect on its market value.

Take the case of Boudin. Last year, three Boudin beach scenes appeared at auction, painted within two years of each other, all about the same size. One made £655,200: the other two, a tenth of that price. Why? Because the first depicted gentry and the others, fisherfolk. A Fantin Latour flower study? One made $1.5 million at Christie's New York last year, while its pair, with exactly the same provenance, was bought in. The difference? The first was on a light background; the second on a dark one. A Fontana slashed canvas? Far more valuable if it is red, not green.

What follows are some of the subjects that can determine the value of a picture. Naturally, it is a very general view: there are plenty of exceptions, and masterpieces make their own rules. Virtually every work of art is different, and provenance, condition and rarity have the biggest impact on price. If you have a top-quality painting in great condition by a famous artist, it will sell well, whatever the subject. But when all things are equal, the subject matter could make all the difference to the price of a work of art.

Girls on top

The most obvious example of how subject influences value is portraiture. Beautiful young women and children are winners; ugly old men are losers. But widows in black or sick children-greatly prized by the sentimental Victorians-are definitely a hard sell these days. “We try to give these works titles, such as 'On the mend', but they're still difficult,” sighs one auction house specialist.

The dealer Philip Mould of Historical Portraits explains that, with portraits, “the sitter is often as significant as the artist.” He is currently offering two portraits which nicely illustrate the difference in value: Sir Thomas Lawrence's depiction of Lady Lethbridge (1803), priced at £80,000, while the same artist's “Portrait of an old man” is on offer at just £20,000 (see below). Andy Warhol portraits are a case in point: an orange Marilyn is worth some $15 million, whereas Richard Nixon sells for just $700,000.

As well as beautiful, the sitter should appear good humoured: “dumpy and grumpy” is not good, says Mark Poltimore, senior specialist in 19th-century paintings at Sotheby's, who adds that even the faintest trace of a moustache on an otherwise beautiful woman immediately lowers the value.

Men in uniform are more desirable than men in ordinary clothes. “A soldier in red is the most sought-after decorative portrait,” says Mr Mould, “And it can be an interior designer's perfect solution to have an undisturbed plane of colour.” Undressed, women sell for much more than men. A Boucher nude of a woman will make at least 10 times the price of a male nude by the same artist: “Anything coquettish or sexy is desirable,” says Lord Poltimore, “but not too much so. Something too overtly sexual is a turn-off, and sometimes if a man wants to buy it, his wife can scupper the sale!”

The social status of the sitter also makes a difference. “It could make a portrait more saleable, but not necessarily more valuable”, says Mr Mould, pointing out that Reynold's portrait of Omai, a Tahitian servant, sold for £10.3 million in 2001, which benefited from interest in the exotic. Renoir painted his servants, which does not stop buyers paying millions of dollars for a good example.

High life versus low life

Similarly, not just the status of the people, but the places depicted in a work of art also determine value. Venice is far more appealing than a grimy town in northern France, Le Havre for instance, and the price paid for a work of art will reflect that difference. A Sisley river scene showing toffs boating on the Seine at Bougival is worth more than one showing the more working-class area of Suresnes. Landscapes can treble in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground, or show a sunny harvesting scene. But evidence of industry-factory chimneys or shipyards-lowers value, unless the artist is particularly noted for them as Lowry is, for instance.

The hierarchy is respected in other areas, for instance flowers. For a start, floral still lifes make more than those of fruit, and some flowers are more desirable than others. Roses come top, chrysanthenums at the bottom: in Sotheby's recent sale of Scottish paintings a work showing roses on a pale ground sold for over £200,000, while one of chrysanthenums on a dark ground did not find a buyer (see facing page), and, “Lupins are not very desirable,” shudders the specialist Peter Mitchell, “so very suburban.” A painting showing silver, a valuable ceramic or exquisite glass may well be correspondingly more valuable than one showing everyday earthenware or pewter.

Stormy weather

Water, whether it be in seascapes, rivers or garden ponds, always adds value, but only if it is calm. The best examples are Monet's Waterlilies, with their dappled expanses of water, which regularly sell for over £10 million. But Barbizon works by Daubigny or Courbet, which show the country life of peasants, with muddy waters and herds of cows, fetch much lower prices than the sophisticated pleasure-ponds of Monet. “People love David Hockney's swimming pools, and they fetch at least a quarter more than his California landscapes,” says Cheyenne Westphal of Sotheby's.

Today's taste is a weekenders' view of the sea, all sun and pleasure, not the harsh reality of seafaring. Rough waters and stormy weather detract from a painting's value; the French author François Duret-Robert claims this is because high seas and hurricanes are masculine, and calm ones feminine, reflecting the price difference between women and men in portraits; others think more prosaically that rough seas induce seasickness in the observer. And shipwrecks in the picture are a no-no: they can wreck the chances of a sale as well.

The yuk factor

Scenes of death, destruction or excrement present an interesting problem. In the Old Master field, only some buyers are willing to accept “difficult” subjects: Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents made £49.5 million in 2002, but that was a masterpiece: generally there is little stomach for scenes of death, be they religious or secular. While Spanish collectors will still spend large sums on a gory martyrdom, most buyers shun dead animals or Crucifixions. A painting of a meet, with excited hounds and riders in smart pinks is desirable, but the kill is a real turn-off, particularly in the case of otter hunts.

In the contemporary field, despite the number of works depicting body fluids and excrement or even made with them, they can be hard to sell. 'Turds are tough,” admits Ms Westphal. “Beauty still makes a difference, and many of the rules about value in traditional art still apply. The highest prices for Gerhard Richter are achieved by his candle paintings, which are the symbol of Vanitas, so refer back to the earlier traditions of art.”

The exception to this general rule is for works with gruesome subjects that have become signature pieces for an artist. So Andy Warhol's “Electric chairs” are among his most expensive works (but still worth far less than a Marilyn), while the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by the death-and-destruction specialists Jake and Dinos Chapman was for an installation of a bloody Manchurian torture, showing blood dripping from a dismembered corpse.

Pecking order

A cute animal adds value to a painting, but the animal kingdom has its pecking order too. Some breeds of dogs do very much better than others: spaniels, terriers and setters are worth more than Pomeranians, alsatians or collies, and, in general, pedigree animals are worth more than mongrels. A recent sale at Bonhams in San Francisco underlined the difference: Hester Sorrel by John Emms made $20,000, double the estimate, but a perfectly decent painting of a collie made just $2,250 (see right). Racehorses outpace carthorses; eagles soar over sparrows; elephants trample over warthogs.

Gamebirds show a similar pattern: here the rule of thumb is that the more expensive it is to shoot a bird, the more expensive is the painting that shows it. So grouse comes at the top, with duck, snipe and woodcock below. Take the case of two Thorburns, handled by Bonhams: the mallard is worth an eighth of the grouse. Peacocks and magpies also devalue the price of a work: many people believe they bring bad luck, unless the painting shows two magpies, in which case it is easier to sell because of the traditional saying about magpies, “Two for joy.”

And the view of the animal can be important: pictures showing them from the back are worth less than from the front: faces win over bottoms, hands down. Two works by Joseph Farquarson make the point: Sheep in the Snow showing sheep facing the viewer made £26,000 in 1998, but Winter Afternoon, a similar subject but with the sheep turned away, was bought in.

Colour me beautiful

The importance of colour was underlined in Sotheby's London sale of Impressionist and Modern art in February. On the block were two Picassos, each dating from 1967. The subjects and size were comparable. But “Mousquetier et nu couché”, estimated at £1.8/2.5 million, sold for £2.5 million, while “Nu assis et joueur de flute”, estimated at £1.5/2 million, was bought in. The difference? The first had an attractive pink background, while the second was dominated by a cold green, which may explain why it failed to find a buyer. In general, works with bright, bold or pale colours are far more saleable than dark works: just look at the enormous price rises in the past five years for Fauve or German Expressionist works. The price of Fontana's slashed canvases have a strict hierarchy: white and red come top, while yellow and green are much less valuable.

Size matters

Size and shape also influence the price of a work of art. Many people want to put their picture over a mantelpiece, so the horizontal format may do better than vertical. Big pictures used to be difficult to sell, but with the growing popularity of the New York loft apartment lifestyle, bigger, splashy works are much more sought after. However, “Too big can be a deterrent, and we have to price [very large works] down a couple of levels”, says Michael McGinnis, head of contemporary art at Phillips, de Pury & Co. For reasons that no one I spoke to could explain, round and oval works are the least desirable, particularly for buyers of traditional art: Damien Hirst's spin paintings do not seem to suffer from the same problem.

John Baldessari's Tips for Artists, 1967-68. Photo: The Broad Art Foundation
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24 Jun 13
15:8 CET


Very informative and practical. I would like to learn more as I am an artist and this really helps.

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