05/29/2006: "The Never-Ending Mystery: Pricing Your Work" by Paul Dorrell

Blog by Paul Dorrell at Absolutearts.com

How do you go about establishing fair prices for the works you create—meaning fair to you as well as to potential collectors? Easy. Get a dart board, tape a range of prices to it, toss six darts at the sucker, and see where they land. The middle figure wins.

You don’t like that? Then try this: go to a series of galleries, find works by established artists that are in some way similar to yours, then set prices that you’re comfortable with in comparison. If the established artist is in the range of, say, $15,000 per painting, this is likely not a realistic comparison. If they’re in the range of $700 to $4000 per painting, depending on size, that will likely be more suitable. Even then, if you're an emerging artist, it would not be practical for you to charge the same prices. The artist whose work you’re viewing has probably been at it a long time, paid heavily in her dues, and is now reaping her rewards. If you’re in the beginning stages of your career, it’s doubtful that you’re at her level yet.

The same rules apply to sculptors, ceramists, etc.

Of course I can’t tell you what prices to set, but I can say that initially they should be moderate. It’s unlikely that you’ll make a killing right out, and it’s generally unwise to expect to. I advise that you concentrate on placing as many works with as many people as possible, which in the beginning is normally achieved through moderate pricing. These clients can then be listed on your resume as collectors, which will lend you greater credibility as your career expands, and as you later approach galleries. In the beginning, you want to make it easy for those collectors to buy your work. In fact it should always be easy, it’s just that later on it should also be more expensive—in fairness to you, and all you’ve sacrificed.

In relation to this, I’m often asked by novice browsers why paintings and sculptures are always so “expensive.” In my gallery, prices currently range from $800 to $10,000 for in-house pieces. (Commissioned work is a different matter.) These are hardly expensive prices by New York standards, but they are expensive to the vast majority of the populace, regardless of where they live. Of course the question is a reasonable one, so I always try to give a reasonable answer.

I typically answer by explaining that my artists have been working in their disciplines for anywhere from twenty to forty years. They’ve established, through decades of struggle, techniques that are unique to them—meaning that their work is uncommon. They have now reached the point where they’re due proper compensation for all the privation they’ve been through, and, in most cases, that their families have been through as well. To charge any less would be a disservice to the artist. I carefully explain all this, then finish by asking the questioner that if they’d been down such a long, exhausting, risk-imperiled road, what would they charge for the work? Invariably the answer is, “More.”

I say, “Very good,” then proceed to close a deal.

Replies: 10 Comments

on Tuesday, May 30th, Olivier Bijon said

You lost my link.
Here it is.Please visit

on Tuesday, May 30th, Olivier Bijon said

Well I am a painter today, bonjour, and have been a long time antique dealer on the international scene. When customers came to see me for an idea of price on a item I used to say : It worth what you can sell it for! You can try to ask a lot if you do not realize the sale you do not have the price in hand. How many times I saw an item making X here in auction than X time 10 even much more in another auction day latter. First in auction you need two customers with a great deal to own the piece. But it is a little bit like that in galleries. If it seat there it does not worth the money. You never heard that? If it is half sold I have to hurry up before price get higgher.. Now another remark is location. Keep the antiques it is a good lesson. Our job as antique dealer was to go in the middle of nowhere seeking for the most precious item and bring it to the best of lest say park avenue, asking an outrageous high price to make it so valuable. Same with galleries, customer with a lot of money doesn't want a 15 000 painting sitting in the living room. Hey I can afford better! To resume I start to make money with antiques when I start to ask for a lot. Before that I was just successfull with very good customers and my lot of cry to pay the bills. Final: customer is king, building a good network is key, location is helpfull but respect that: do not ask for 100 here and sold to 10 there...you are dead.
That's it for my antique experience. Did you like it? Since a year and half I am a painter, I created the pinuptotem.com, and...and never sold a painting. But I am so passionate, findind time for marketing is hard with such a desire of creativity. My web site have thousand of hits everyday but I am still waiting for.. I don't know what. So in the main time I price between 4000 to 14 000 that's Canadian. Hurry up I might double these numbers.
Thanks, have fun

on Tuesday, May 30th, galleriessuck said

I am apalled that the only business that gets free stock is the art gallery business. The first artists who accepted this consignment crap should be crucified. No other business gets free inventory. It's absurd and rapes the artist.

PLUS ...not only do they get free stock...
they treat the artist like crap
...don't pay them..
AND !!! hike the prices over double!!!!

on Monday, May 29th, olgadmy@yahoo.com">olga said

I agree with Jose, Paul - it's very interesting and important to hear your views - thanks a lot!

on Monday, May 29th, Paul Dorrell said


This is a hot topic, and one of my pet peeves. My gallery, and artists, used to routinely get asked to donate work to various auctions. My response? Sure we'll donate: I set the prices, and 50% of the proceeds goes to the artist, just as if a gallery sold the work. The selling price cannot deviate from what I set. Consequently, we're not asked as often as we once were.

As you observed, the way it's currently arranged does indeed undermine the art market, gives the impression that the worth of an artist's work is minimal, and that artists are therefore unimportant.

When these charities come to me now, I advise that they ask local corporations to donate. Artists? They struggle enough, and should be the last people to ask this of. But until artists learn to stand their ground on this issue, it will continue, and continue to undermine their careers. I'll blog on this at greater length later in the year.

on Monday, May 29th, gabriella said

Paul; Good blog!
I would like you to weigh in with an opinion on the advisability of artists donating work to charitable auctions auctioning off art, and whether or not this practise tends to devalue artist's works.
Numerous times I have been asked to donate paintings to charitable auctions. The very few times I have donated, the paintings went for fire-sale prices. The thought occurs to me, that buyers who can get work so cheaply will then become immune to commercial pricing, and expect to get art-work at huge discounts. I know of people who make it a habit to go from auction to auction, buy up work and then crow about how they have beat the commercial system of exchange.
The usual way organizations approach artists to donate work for their cause is to say that the artists then get "free" exposure and publicity to a broader buying public. Never have i seen dentists being asked to provide a root canal at an auction, or a plumber being asked to provide a free installation of a heat sink, nor would these professionals demean their hourly take for such services by auctioning them off at a charity sale!
Why is it then that artists are considered such sitting ducks for such purported opportunities?

on Monday, May 29th, walt said

Potential clients should always be reminded not only of the struggle and years in the process but the fact that an original work means that there is not another one like it out there. Prices are set in our small contemporary minds by the fact that most commodities are mass produced thereby reducing the cost enormously. But a one of a kind is more like a prototype. Prototypes typically cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of times more than the production model. Think of how much it would cost if automobiles were created one at a time and each new model was an original creation. This is also the reason why a signed original print should be carefully defined as one in which the artist has actually handworked the plate then strikes the plate once the edition is run. Hense the terms original and limited edition and the proof of the limitation. (Often times the artist keeps the stricken plates as proof of limitation and to keep the plates from the hands of those who might try to profit from them.) Personally I feel that the new digital print revolution should not try to ride on the back of terms set up by an older technology but instead create it's own language. Otherwise confusion becomes the norm in the minds of less than educated collectors. Original should have meaning.

I don't sell a lot of my work these days because I've decided that I must receive the value invested both in my personal time creating the work and in the time I've spent learning my craft. My days of lost leaders are over. It never really worked for me anyway. It simply established my prices lower than I could afford. But when I do sell a painting now I never feel cheated. Frankly I tie my prices in to the mortgage of my house. My monthly price being the lowest price I charge so that one sale equals one mortgage payment (with very few exceptions). A more expensive work will pay multiple mortgage payments. (The last large sale covered about 7 months worth of payments.) When I explain this to a potential client they get it right away because it gets them where they live. What potential client doesn't make a certain amount of money per day for what it is they do? And isn't their cash flow related to their expenses? We even talk about how much of the year we work just to pay taxes. This is basic business 101. We can talk all we want about lost leaders, and they are sometimes valuable. But an artist's worth is tied to the price of their last sale. So if we sell too cheap for too long we simply become a cheap date in most peoples minds. If that value doesn't come up in a reasonable length of time then the investor feels they have been sold a worthless bill of goods. Art is not like other commodities. It has value beyond the intrinsic necessities. In fact there is no obvious necessity to buy one or another painting with the exception of defined value (in short the value of the last sale). All other artistic value is percieved value and therefore subjective. Remember that an awful lot of artwork does not rise in value. In fact I can always find a lot of it in the resale shops around town often selling for pennies on the dollar. In fact I sometimes buy it up for the frames. I'm not dissing Paul's system. It probably has some value and most likely works well enough to keep him in business. And may also help a few artists begin to establish themselves. But there comes a time when an artist has to decide whether they are real or not, whether they take their art seriously or not, whether making a living from the art is as important as making something original of value that doesn't have to compete with mass marketed goods. These days there are really only a few artists who can command those kinds of prices. The collectors paying for that kind of work are few and far between. How often have you been to the home of a wealthy business person and seen the low grade tastless stuff on their walls? They'll frame a football jersey as soon as buy a piece of really original art. The idea that every young artist deserves to make a living from their art is a new idea that has no basis in reality. We must remember that the history of art simply ignores those who never made it to the great museum collections so we cannot compare our careers to those famous artists too quickly or without serious self reflection. And those collections are not gathered from the lady next door who likes the color of your flower painting because it goes with the color of her couch or even the local business owner who commissions a portrait of their store front or a portrait commemorating their great grandfather who started the business 50 years ago.

on Monday, May 29th, Paul Dorrell said


Thanks. There are more of us around than you may realize. As for the others, I'm forming an integrity bootcamp for wayward art dealers. You can be commandant; I'll be your assistant. Send us your dishonest, your arrogant, your petty art dealers, and we will reform them--or at least have a great time trying.


on Monday, May 29th, jose freitas cruz said

Paul, i’ll say it again: were it that there were more gallery owners/directors like you around! As artists it is tremendously important for us to hear your side of things, and to get the feeling that there are honest people out there who actually care about us and value and understand the difficulties we have to go through. This is sound advice and hope for those who still have those twenty years ahead of them and a good reminder to those who have been at it that long and are reaching the stage when they can start to reap the benefits they deserve. I look forward to reading your views on other aspects of that [othen murky] area where the gallerist and the artist meet.