Why Do Works of Art Sell For Millions of Dollars?

An explanation of extraordinary values

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Photo by fan yang on Unsplash

As an artist, I’m sometimes asked how I price my paintings. The most I’ve ever sold a painting for is £800 (around $1,000). It’s a lot of money for most people, certainly me, but compared to the upper echelons of the art market it’s mere pennies.

To keep my answer as simple as possible — because debates about what makes art valuable are rarely much fun — I tend to say that the bigger the dimensions of the piece, the higher price tag I give it.

“Why? Is it because you use more paint?” — I’ve been asked.

Not really, I say. It’s because it’s usually takes me longer to paint it.

In truth, however — as most artists will know — bigger works don’t necessarily take longer to make. I’ve laboured for many hours over small paintings that have ultimately been unsuccessful; other works, sometimes on a large scale, have come together quickly and easily.

In short, there’s hardly ever an exact correlation between time spent on a painting and its price tag. The real question to my mind is how good the painting is. And that’s a more difficult quality to put a price on.

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Salvator Mundi (circa 1500) by Leonardo da Vinci. Oil on walnut wood. Louvre Abu Dhabi. Source Wikimedia Commons

The most expensive artworks ever sold reach into the hundreds-of-millions of dollars, as the list of the top five show:

  • Salvator Mundi (c.1500) by Leonardo da Vinci (shown above) sold for $450.30 in 2017
  • Interchange (1955) by Willem de Kooning sold for $300 in 2015
  • The Card Players (1892/93) by Paul Cézanne sold for an estimated $250 in 2011
  • When Will You Marry? (1892) by Paul Gauguin sold for $210 in 2014
  • Number 17A (1948) by Jackson Pollock sold for $200 in 2015

It is impossible to justify how any of the works in the list above are actually worth that amount, except that, like anything that’s for sale, it all depends on how much someone is willing to pay.

When it comes to high value items like paintings, the context of the sale is key. A painting hung in a high-end gallery in London’s Mayfair or New York’s Chelsea is more likely to sell for a higher price than if it were touted in a flea market in a suburban town. This is not necessarily because the work is any better, but because the vendor has a higher status in the cultural hierarchy.

In short, the context affects desirability.

There is of course a degree of bluster to this, a commercial hyping-up. It may seem a touch inappropriate to consider a work of art a subject for hype, but where there’s money to be made then it’s likelihood is probably inevitable.

To the art market, the desirability of a work is an aggregate value of many different factors. Quality is the main consideration, made up many different facets: the prestige of the work, the prestige of the artist, the rarity of the artist on the market, the value of other works sold by the same artist, and finally, the provenance, that is, the history of a work’s ownership as a guide to its authenticity.

The situation is magnified and distorted by the fact that the art market is a trading arena of some of the world’s wealthiest people. Moreover, it is not unusual for a work of art sold for multi-millions to sit in a sealed vault for several years whilst it accrues yet more value. To inflate prices, art dealers control the supply and demand of artworks. If, by chance or by intention, multiple works by the same artist come onto the market at the same time, it can be a disaster everyone who wants a slice of the pie.

Prestige of the work

Through various ways, a work of art can grow in fame and appreciation. Some works of art find their way into the public imagination because they have been the subject of an important book or a film, used in advertisements, or else they have somehow caught the mood of a moment. Others simply attain their prestige over time, finding their way into major collections and being talked about by art enthusiasts and collectors during the course of centuries. Others still become notorious for their shocking or ground-breaking content.

Prestige of the artist

Like the prestige of the work, the prestige of the artist can change over time, where different artists come in and out of fashion. For instance, if a major art gallery holds a exhibition of an artist’s work, the reputation of the artist can bloom significantly over a brief period. Dealers in art are acutely aware of these temperature changes and will control the release of work onto the market to coincide with them.

Wherever there is public attention, be it in the form of newspaper articles or books, or scholarly articles or radio interviews, so the prestige of the artist tends to increase. For new, upcoming artists, their inclusion in the collection of a major museum will signal that their work has been endorsed by the wider art world. Factors like these and many others can lead an artist to develop a more favourable reception among the public and the art buying market.

Rarity of the artist on the market

As with many other commodities, the value of an artist’s work is intimately related to its scarcity. An artist like Leonardo da Vinci, whose body of known paintings amounts to just 34, the very rarity of his work (in relation to his fame) naturally increases their desirability. Like rare metals and precious stones, artworks have the prestige of uniqueness, whereby a marketplace responds to the scarcity of the item.

Value of other works sold by the same artist

Many people who buy art will do so as an investment as much as as for the love of the work. Just like one would look at local house prices to understand the value of one’s own property, so artworks develop a standing in the marketplace partly on account of the sale price of other works by the same artist in recent times.

Again, artists and dealers are wise to this factor, and do their best to balance scarcity against visibility. For instance, the boost given to an artist with a solo exhibition is balanced against the danger of having too many works coming onto the market at the same time. To mitigate against this, a proportion of the works may be deemed “not for sale” or “sold” in order to elevate those that are still available.

Provenance: the history of a work’s ownership as a guide to its authenticity

Provenance is to do with the history of ownership of a work of art. For contemporary art this is less of an issue, but with anything made by an artist who is no longer alive, provenance is about ensuring the work is genuine and by the hand of the artist in question — and not, say, by a member of their workshop, by an admiring follower, or else a talented forger.

Provenance is especially useful for being able to track the movement of a work of art through the ages. Historians use the record of previous owners, if it exists, in order to establish its journey through time. Many other aspects of an artwork, such as its style and apparent age, help to guide experts as to whether the work is by the artist it is claimed to be by. All of this lends reassurance to the buyer of the artwork that it is authentic.

So does aesthetic value have any place?

All this might strike you as quite depressing, to think that a work of art might be the subject of such commercial opportunism. But I think that quality still has a part to play in the value of a work of art.

Whilst a reliable correlation between an artist’s talent and the price they command in the market will never be possible to prove, other factors such as historical significance, originality, and the effect on the cultural moment, play an enormous role in establishing the reputation of an artist and their work. And these things don’t happen by chance; they take dedication and (almost always) genuine ability.

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Christopher P Jones is a writer and artist. He blogs about culture, art and life at his website.

A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

Christopher P Jones

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY


A magazine of literature, arts, culture, and opinion

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