Ask a Gallery Owner | Does an Artist’s Death Result in an Increase in the Value of that Artist’s Work?

There’s an old, morbid joke that in order for an artist to see a significant increase in the value of her work, all she has to do is die. Underlying this dark humour is a deep-seated belief among the public at large, and among some artists, that once an artist passes away, their work will invariably increase in value.

Nafea Faa Ipoipo? by Paul Gauguin sold for $210M in 2014

This belief is based on a limited understanding of how the deceased-artist art market works, and on some limited examples where the value of deceased artists’ art has indeed increased dramatically post-mortem. All one has to do is peruse recent auction records to see examples of sales of work by deceased artists for tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars to have this idea reinforced.

Unfortunately, in most cases, a false correlation is being drawn. The artwork isn’t selling at elevated prices solely because the artist is deceased.  The art is selling because there is high demand for the work. The artist’s demise is a factor, sure – the supply of the work is now limited to existing work, and if the demand is higher than that supply, prices will rise – but dying won’t, on its own, increase demand for the art.

Our misperception of how the market works is driven by the fact that we only hear about the cases where the value of the work skyrockets. We’re unlikely to read a headline that says, “Artist Dies, Artwork Continues to Sell at About the Same Price it did When the Artist was Alive.”  Ultimately, this headline would likely be more universally applicable.

I recently received an email from a RedDot reader on this subject.

My good friend and painting-buddy passed away of a severe form of leukemia. I’ve painted alongside him for almost eight years. He fought the cancer for two years. He was a prolific plein air painter and produced countless pieces over the years. He told his wife he’d like me to curate his work. Now that the emotional dust has begun to settle, his wife and I are getting ready to dig in to the project. I’ve never done this before. I chatted with a friend of mine who gave me some thoughts on organizing such a project. I wondered if you might have some advice for me. With such a large task, I’d like to be thorough the first time through. [My friend] advised to note the date, medium, location where the painting was done, price, and include [the artist’s] narrative which almost always was included with his paintings. During his last 6 months or so, he posted a painting/day on Facebook and wrote detailed narratives to accompany each painting.

The next question has to do with potential posthumous sales. [The artist’s wife] is of the mind that reserving his paintings will result in their increase in value. The money to be gained isn’t her motive, but rather reinforcing or enhancing the current value. Is it always the case that the art of a deceased artist increases in value? Might it be wise to release some for sale in batches from time to time as opposed to just sitting on the collection. Is there an optimal period of time before such artwork should be made available to the public for purchase?

My reply:

First allow me to say that I’m sorry to hear of your loss – it sounds like [the artist] was a great mentor and friend.

Cataloguing and inventorying all of the work is a good way to begin. I might suggest that in addition to all of the items you mentioned, it would also be a good idea to index the subject-matter of each piece so that you can easily cross-reference and group the work.

How well known was [the artist]? Did he show in galleries? How many collectors had bought his work over the years? All of these factors will play in to how the work values posthumously. Unless an artist is widely collected and the work is in high demand at the time of death, it’s unlikely that there would be a big bump in value. For high-demand artists the bump comes because the supply is suddenly cut off but the demand is strong. For most other artists, passing has very little impact on demand, but it can decrease the likelihood that a gallery would be interested in showing the artist’s work if they weren’t already doing so.

Was Bob represented by galleries? Where would you be trying to market the work?

I haven’t yet received a reply to the questions I raised, but I think you can see where I’m going with the questions. I do think that regulating the release of new work is a good idea if there is a network of galleries in place with the ability to market the work, and a collector base established to create the demand.

I’ve seen instances where the value actually decreases because the artist’s estate and existing collectors flood the market immediately after the death of an artist.

The greater difficulty comes if there wasn’t much existing demand for the artist’s work. It is exceedingly difficult to create a market for an artist who is no longer producing. Buyers have no reason to expect that demand that wasn’t there during the artist’s lifetime will suddenly materialize upon his death.

Some Tips for Making an Artist’s Passing Easier on the Family and Estate

For all of the reasons listed above, it’s critical that an artist work to sell as much of his or her work while still alive. I would also argue that you will enjoy the sales more while you are alive 😉

In addition to actively promoting your work and building an audience, I would recommend doing the following in preparation for your passing.

  1. Keep an accurate and complete inventory of your work, including photos, dimensions and descriptions.
  2. Include your wishes for the disposition of your artwork after your passing in your will. Include detailed information about any bequests of specific works.
  3. Discuss with an estate/tax planner the financial implications of the transfer of ownership of your work on your passing. Passing your art on to family members or others can incur a significant tax liability for the beneficiaries. The IRS may try to tax the value of your work at its full retail value, a potential disaster for your family.

What Do You Think?

Have you had the chance to see what happens to the value of an artist’s work upon the artist’s death? Do you have plans in place regarding the disposition of your work when you pass? What would you recommend to the artist who wrote me, or to family that’s trying to decide what to do with a deceased artist’s work? Please share your experience and thoughts in the comments below.

 

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

20 Comments

  1. I am printing this column and putting it in with our will, so my husband has an idea of what to do if I get hit by a truck. (I have printed out and also have on my computer a “Truck List” of everything he’d need to know about my art business, just in case….) I use Artsala faithfully so the documentation is easy to find, with all of the information you suggested above available at a click of a button.

  2. As an Artist, when I pass away I have no control of what happens to my Artwork… My exposure, reputation & sales are only important to me during my lifetime.

    It is nice to think that my Artwork might become valuable, famous & popular when I have entered the big Artist’s Studio in the sky but what will be will be…

    I think the Artist’s friend that wrote to you is lovely for doing what they are doing. I think I am extremely lucky that I may have friends that will do the same for me. That is what is really important, irrespective of the outcome…

  3. I am an artist who is going through a similar situation right now, helping the widow of my late painting teacher. He passed away about 10 years ago, was features in ‘Who’s Who in Art in America’ and he left a large body of high quality (and fairly high priced) oil paintings. His widow had to move out of her house (which also housed his studio) fairly quickly, so I offered to store his unsold work in an unused guest room so she did not have to rent a climate controlled storage unit while deciding what to do with it. I had offered her to help with a retrospective exhibit about one year after his passing, but she was emotionally not able to deal with that at the time. Now, 10 years later, his mailing list is no longer usable (too many people have moved/deceased and the Working Artists software program is no longer supported). Luckily, a local gallery is currently featuring and selling some of his work, but this prevented her from putting the rest of the paintings in an estate sale since the gallery had asked for exclusivity in the area during the show (which will be up for half a year). We’re still looking for options after the show ends but it made me realize a few important things: chances are an artist’s work is more valuable by life than after death, try to sell as much as you can right after the artist is deceased when people still remember him or her, the mailing list & gallery connections are the most valuable and don’t count on a deceased artist’s artwork for regular retirement income!

  4. I am giving each of my children and grandchildren one of my artworks while I am still living so that they won’t have a bunch of unsold stuff to get rid of when I die. I am almost 86 years old; still active and healthy, and still painting. I let them pick out which one they want. Since I have six living children, 24 living grandchildren, and 20 living great grandchildren, I think the gifts will help decrease my collection!

  5. I had one of my past gallery artists pass away several years ago. He did watercolors which sold (very regularly) in the range of $3,000.00 to $5,000.00…His brother inherited his estate and immediately thought that since his brother had passed away that the prices should now be set at $20,000.00 each. I advised him against it however he would not give in. Knowing that this was an unwise decision, I agreed to give it a try for at least a year at $20,000. Not one painting sold, and the artist’s brother is now sitting with a bunch of paintings in storage. It is extremely difficult for a gallery to raise the prices of an artist’s work so drastically and then drop them back down. The romantacised concept which the public has that once an artist is dead, their work automatically will increase in value is simply nonsense. Find a gallery which you trust and work with them. Galleries are in the business of making money, and a good gallery knows the market. If you are represented with a gallery discuss the idea of them handling your work when you pass on, and put something in writing which allows for just that.

  6. Great article, and I have had experience on the other end, trying to find the value of a painting we inherited. The artist Adolphus George Broom was a respected member of a community near us and his estate has had a showing of his work in a public gallery a few years ago. When I went online to see what auction prices on his work were, they were in the range of 350 – 400 dollar mark for 11 X 14 sized works. That is similar to what my work goes for. I think I may just keep the painting and enjoy it!

  7. I was snubbed by one museum for acquisitions of my photos due to the fact that I was not dead. They said their policy was to not collect living artists.

    Yes, prices increase for dead artists…if you are a museum grade / collectible artist. If not, then it does not matter much if an artist is dead or not. Just because an artist is dead their crappy art does not magically become priceless…until 100 years or so has passed.

  8. What a co-incidence! I tried to start this conversation with our very small family over the weekend.
    My sister didn’t want to hear it. My wife thought it no big deal. My daughter, to whom the responsibility would fall said we need to talk. My son in law agreed, knowing that a large storage issue was on the horizon.
    I’m in the category of unknown and mostly unsold. I’m looking seriously at a couple of large, notable, and unwieldy pieces that will most likely have no home. A serious option is to authorize my curator/daughter to dispose of the work in any way she sees fit. [This is a painful thing for us all, obviously as an artist’s life is bound in their work.]
    I’m thinking that I should start now with the curator chores. It’s bigger than an inventory.
    Question: Would it be feasible to direct all the extant work be placed in a trust? i remember a long time ago talking with a lawyer about this but the details are long gone. I want to avoid that tax issue with so few people involved of course.

  9. To sell as much art as you can while still alive is brilliant! Like you said before, the best inventory storage is in a gallery or client’s home.

    Making coffee table books of my watercolor paintings of Oregon will hopefully help by communicating “hey, look, this artist has a body of work, he must be a somebody”, in the same way as I used to buy records and the similar version was “hey, these guys have a few albums out, they must be a cool band” and I’d buy their stuff to check them out.

  10. We might all wish to read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. I thought the title was a joke until I found out otherwise. The Swedish author writes that in her culture, it is considered extremely rude to leave your spouse/relatives/friends with responsibility of deciding what to do with the mess you may have left upon your demise. She advises that it should all be given away, or be clearly assigned to loved ones or entities long before you pass on.

    I suppose I am “regionally famous” and there might be a moderate flurry of collectors who would want my work upon my demise. I have already prescribed that I don’t want tears, but rather a party of sorts when I leave this world. Perhaps whatever paintings are left at that time can be set out at the event, collectors invited, and take home one piece, my final gift to friends and family.

  11. Last week I got a small painting in the mail from a friend that passed away last summer. Apparently she marked all her art work who was getting what, and the curator of her estate is sending it out. What a wonderful surprise to get this gift of hers! I plan to do something similar with my art!

  12. Thank you, Jason, for this important topic and thank you all who responded. It’s been very helpful.

    I agree—just because an artist has died doesn’t automatically mean their work becomes valuable. If they haven’t sold much (or if they haven’t sold anything) during their lifetime, why should their work suddenly become of interest to collectors?

    I especially liked the suggestion about the Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. I’m going to follow up on that.

    My situation is made more complicated as my son–my only child–and his family live in Australia. He doesn’t have any interest in my art and I doubt his children do either. Besides, the shipping to Australia would be extremely costly and would make the whole venture impractical.

    The topic is one that needs to be talked about. Thank you again for bringing it up.

  13. This is an article which makes me feel all teared up. I have been a closet artist my entire life! Not until my dad died in 2017, did I allow myself to pursue what I was passionate about doing. You see, when I was still in school I told my dad what I wanted to do and he reprimanded me harshly. The old story of what this article is about. Now I am painting as never before, exploring and even surprising myself at what I am capable of creating. Great article!!!

    1. Judith I feel the same way. I am an unapologetic “maximillist”. I am trying to get junk out, unnecessary papers etc. But the art is stacking up. I always give art to family members who seem to love it but they can only handle so much. I think if I could sell it all that would be great..as it is the stuff that is 10 yrs. old is being painted over or destined for the spring bonfire! So i will try to lessen the burden on my 2 sons but I make no promises. That said…the watercolor club I am a member of had a member die a few years back. Her entire studio was bequeathed to the club for a scholarship program for high school watercolor artists, picked every year from an annual high school art show at a very well known museum here. We hold silent auctions for her books and supplies. I am not sure what happened to her paintings. She was not a well known artist. But I think it is a grand idea. I am on the board and we have 1 or 2 people in charge of the auctions and sales. The money is then given to one or two students. I am thinking that when I kick the bucket I will have my kin put up my paintings and let the mourners/party goers pick a painting !
      My late husband left enough fishing equipment to outfit a small town. That is my task to divy it up. I am going to get my sons and grandson outfitted and then get a hold of his work friends and see if any of them want it. Better used than sitting in a shed.

  14. This is a subject I haven’t given much thought about yet. But as a senior who just started painting I really don’t know if there will be much demand for my work. I just hope my family and friends will cherish what I have painted for them. When I’m gone, whatever I haven’t sold they can have if they want it. The rest they can sell if they want to and destroy all the unsigned junk. I may put a suggested value that I think it may be worth on the back or in a note. But if it’s not going to be sold why get the IRS involved? Anything I don’t think is good enough to my standard I don’t sign. The bonfire option I don’t like unless no one wants any of my work. So far I have gotten positive feed back about anything I have done for family and friends. I try to find what subject they like for a painting not just what I like to do. Right now I’m open to most any subject but if it’s something I don’t want to paint or if I feel I can’t do a quality job, I will tell them to make another choice.

  15. Along that line… I have always joked with my family that my work will be worth more when I am gone.
    Then, I went on a mission. I am trying my darndest to promote my work, win awards, be broadcast on TV shows & get shown in galleries. IOW leave a trail… a good trail.
    History on record is sure to improve value.

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