Myths and Misconceptions of the Art World | Myth #4 – Lower Art Prices = More Sales

I am the first to admit that art pricing is one of the greatest mysteries of the art business. Valuing art is more akin to alchemy than it is to hard science. Artists who are new to the art market will often ask me how much their art is worth. I can only shrug my shoulders and say “it depends.”

The value of art is largely arbitrary. There are no objective elements that would allow a gallery owner or an artist to develop a universally optimal price for a particular piece of artwork. There are many variables that come into play with pricing. Ultimately, the right value for a piece of artwork is a price at which the artwork will sell quickly and provide a profit to the artist and art gallery.

Many artists who are in the early stages of selling their work operate under the misconception that selling artwork is analogous to selling other products. In most businesses, offering buyers a lower price provides a competitive advantage and increases sales.

I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard artists say “People tell me my prices are too low, but I’m afraid to raise them because it will scare away buyers.” These artists are often not selling much of their work even at the low prices, and so they are afraid that if they increase their prices they will experience even fewer sales.

The Art Market is Different from Other Markets

In classic economic theory this thinking would make sense – increasing the price would decrease the demand for the art, and thus slow down the rate of sales. Logic tells us that a lower price will make the art accessible to a wider range of buyers, and that those buyers will view your pricing in comparison to other artists. If your price is lower than the competition, the thinking goes, consumers will buy your work.

In my experience, this kind of logic simply doesn’t apply to the art market. A lower price would increase demand if you were selling a widget that was identical to your competitors’ widgets, but you aren’t. You are creating artwork that is unique and different from what any other artist is creating.

You are also selling in a market where a low price isn’t the primary motivating factor for a purchase. The purchase of artwork is completely discretionary. In order to afford art, a buyer has to have some disposable income available to purchase what most would consider a luxury item. Luxury buyers typically don’t want to feel that they are buying the cheapest option available. This explains why people will buy a Rolls Royce, when a Hyundai would get them to their destination, and it also explains why art buyers will spend many thousands of dollars on a piece of artwork.

Low Prices Can Hamper Your Sales

Ironically, in the art world, a lower price
can actually hamper your sales!  Most
art buyers judge the quality of artwork by its price, not it’s price by the
quality. It’s too difficult to look at a work of art and decide what it should
be worth. If you put an irrationally low price on a piece of artwork, you are
signalling to the buyer that there must be something wrong with it.

Of course, you might ask “low price compared to what?” That is the perfect question to ask. Buyers will judge your price relative to the other artwork in the context in which they are viewing it. For this reason, I suggest that artists price their work in the midrange of the markets in which they show, or in which they want to show.

Your work should neither be the highest or lowest price work in any given market where you are trying to sell. Because art markets can vary dramatically, this means that once you set your pricing, it may preclude you from showing your work in some art markets or venues. For example, many artists who are showing through galleries in well-established art markets can no longer show their work in small art festivals, or in their hometown if they live in an area that doesn’t have a strong market.

This also means that you shouldn’t randomly inflate your pricing to an extreme level after reading this post. I can imagine you grabbing a marker to add zeros to your price tags while saying “The author of this blogpost promises me my sales will increase if I raise my prices!” While low prices can impede sales, high prices that are out of line with the market can do the same.

If you are struggling with pricing, I would suggest that the best approach is to do some market research in the geographic areas where you feel you would have the best possibility of selling your work. Typically these would be areas that would attract buyers who are interested in your subject matter and where there are a good number of art galleries or art shows/festivals. Research how other artists in that market are pricing their work, and then price your work accordingly – in the midrange.

An Example | We Raised Prices and Sales Increased!

In closing, allow me to illustrate the topsy-turvy nature of pricing in the art market with an example from my gallery. Several years ago we began representing a new artist. It often takes a while for sales to kick into gear with a new artist, but this particular artist’s work began selling right away. In fact, within a couple of weeks, we completely sold out of the initial shipment of art that the artist had sent.

The second shipment of work likewise sold very quickly. It was very gratifying for both us and the artist to see such a strong response from our collectors, but it also posed a challenge. We couldn’t keep his artwork in the gallery for more than a few weeks, which meant that no matter how hard the artist was working, most of our collectors never had the chance to see it, let alone buy a piece. (I know, this is a “problem” we would all like to have!)

It seemed clear that a price increase was necessary. The artist was reluctant to raise prices for fear that we would mess up the mojo that was driving sales, and that sales would surely grind to a halt. I persisted, and eventually we agreed to bump prices up by about ten percent.

Did sales slow down by the same ten percent? Not at all; in fact the tempo of sales increased! Over the course of the last 18 months, we’ve raised prices by about 50% from where they were initially. We still can’t keep the work in the gallery.

This example is certainly a bit of an outlier, but every artist should be working to find venues where the demand outpaces the ability to create. When you find that market, don’t be afraid to raise your prices.

Do You Struggle With Pricing?

Have you found it difficult to set pricing on your artwork? Do you agree that a low price doesn’t necessarily drive increased sales? Do people tell you your pricing is too low?

Share your experiences with pricing in the comments below.

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StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

32 Comments

  1. Excellent article, and full of truth. When I first started making my little horse artifacts years ago, they were priced at (oh lord) $18. People said they were too expensive–and bought them anyway. Within a few years, I doubled the price. People said the same thing–and bought them anyway. Rinse and repeat. Same is still true today, and in 2018, I raised my prices significantly. And exactly the same results.
    What I am REALLY grateful to take away from your post is that once we do this, our success at smaller fairs and shows may fade. This has been true for me from the beginning, but even more so today. Fortunately, a handful of good galleries and my own open studio events take up the slack. But I’ve always worried about that, and your article reassures me I’m not doing it wrong. I’ve come to realize that most of my best buyers either a) know they’re looking at something unique and well-made, or b) have to look at it a lot before they believe what they’re seeing, and trust their instincts. Two very different groups, both well-appreciated!

  2. Thank you for this. This is my second year doing fairs, and I hear “your prices are very reasonable” all the time. It makes me think they’re too low. I’m selling my watercolors a little more every time but not there yet. An artist I met at one fair, who does the coconut grove art Festival told me I would have to raise my prices when I do that show. Your example of raising 10% at a time is helpful.

  3. It can be pretty complicated and I believe that once you raise your prices, you shouldn’t lower them if/when sales drop. Having said that, at about the midpoint in my career with a solid sales history, I had a solo show with works for sale at $2,500. I only sold one which I found, shall we say, unacceptable. I’m an even-tempered gal but I was steaming inside. The next opportunity I had to show, I figured if they’re not selling for $2,500 they might as well not sell for $5,000. The show sold out, brought in a couple of commissions and the rest is history. I wouldn’t recommend that strategy to everyone but my work was at a level that could sustain that and guess intuitively I knew it.

  4. Quite the timely article. I use a price per square inch formula. I notice at shows other artists coming over and taking a peak at my pricing in order to compare pricing. I do the same I have to admit. We all want to be not too low and not too high compared to all the other artists. There is a lot of choices at these shows when you see so many artists selling in one place. When we put so much time into producing our artwork, we don’t want to give them away, but it’s not good to have them sitting in the closet either. I want to see my work on someone’s wall being enjoyed.

    I have a question. How many people are asked “How long did it take you to make that painting”? Does that factor into the price of the painting and whether the buyer thinks it’s worth more if it took longer to paint? Every show I am asked this question and I honestly don’t keep track of the time. Maybe I should charge per hour. Lol.

    1. Hi Adriana,

      When people ask how long a painting took to paint, they are usually just trying to start a conversation. I tell them that, interestingly, the best paintings take the least amount of time. That’s because everything went right with the painting from the start and continued to go right. None of it was repainted to bring it together. Even when I have to repaint a section, I take great care to make it look effortless because no one wants to feel the struggle. (There is enough struggle in our every day lives! :^) )

      Sometimes I’ll point out changes I made to a painting, such as making a shadow side darker or adding violet to the shadows, to illustrate that the painting looks as if it were always that way.

      The analogy of figure skating is apt — the easier it looks, the more beautiful it is.

    2. Hello
      Well my mentor who is an incredible artist when asked how long did it take you to do this painting?
      He replies”my whole life”.
      Actually what ever level of art you are creating in present time took a lot of input and perception and willingness to put a bit of your heart and soul on canvas, sculpture , jewelry, etc.

  5. I set a mid range price on my art after researching online and have discovered, as you said, context is important. Pricing from online research may be appropriate for work on the same online site; but that pricing won’t necessarily translate to the local art association show, or even another online gallery. I’m coming to grips with the need to show in a more affluent market and venue.

  6. I so agree– art, of any kind and price range is a luxury product that artists and galleries must convince buyers has value. Perception is everything, and we are responsible for creating a perception of value as much as for creating good art. I especially like the part about pricing yourself out of a market as the value of your work increases– I may not sell as many paintings per year as if I were selling more by marketing them at festivals and shows, but the profit from the ones I do sell far surpasses anything I could make by selling a large quantity of less expensive works. Once I realized this, my income stream stabilized to a nice level, and even tho I raise prices in increments on my larger works, I can’t keep them in stock. A side note: in my case, it’s my mid-priced works that languish unsold during economic slumps, while my $$$ paintings and tiny prints keep selling. I think it’s important to have a range of prices that touches several segments of buyers. I’ve learned so much from your book and blogs, Jason. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Excellent article. And pricing is not an easy subject for most artists. When I lived on Maui I sold in a gallery, art programs in resorts and a regular weekend art fair. I kept my prices consistent with the gallery. My story to share is that you have to believe in the value of your work. Because if you don’t believe it, then why would your buyer. An artist friend I sat next to at the art fair had a wonderful folk style painting that he had for sale at $200. I was shocked as this was a really good painting- IMO. I told him to display it higher up, not on the ground. He said no one paid any attention to it. Being in the ground was one reason. The other was the price. I took a marker to his price sticker and added a 1- now it was $1200. He said that is way too high- maybe not I said and now you have wiggle room to negotiate a price. Once a price is on the piece you can’t go higher, but you can lower it. He sold that painting within the month for $950. A lot better than $200. Also with better pricing you can lower to offer a discount if the customer wants more than one piece. Look at other art that may be similar to yours and look at the pricing. That can help a lot.

  8. I have a two level price structure and I have been told that is not a good thing.

    I sold 9 paintings on saatchi online, and the commission rate always ends up at 50%. The listed price of my paintings on saatchi includes commission and shipping. I am responsible for packing, you know, glassine paper, bubble wrap, foam core and a wooden crate etc. A painting priced at $1,000 nets me about $400. after sales taxes, packing, overhead and time.

    On the other hand I have sold 14 paintings in this past year at a small artist coop gallery in St. George Utah. The gallery takes a 25% commission and so I lower the prices for people who walk in and carry away. I do ad packing and shipping cost for out of town deliveries. So the prices at the coop gallery are 25% less then on the online gallery. What do you think?

    I am grateful for the success but I am getting overwhelmed by the marketing and administration load.
    I sold another 5 paintings directly and what a tax problem that is. Also gifted another 5 paintings, traded for legal work and other art, another tax issue I have to deal with.

    1. Artists need to be consistent in everything they do, including – and especially – pricing. Do not price your work differently in different venues. It will reflect poorly on you in more ways than one. Let’s say you have a series of paintings of the same subject, style, and size in two venues. What are buyers to think when they purchase one at your higher price and then find a companion piece of the same quality, style, and size at a lower price elsewhere?

      You have jeopardized your relationship with the gallery that offers your work at higher prices than the other venue. You can bet the client will then think the first piece was not actually worth what they paid and that the gallery took advantage of them.

      If I were that gallery owner I would give you two options:

      A. – Stop undercutting my gallery and standardize the pricing of all of your work everywhere to the same levels as my gallery,

      B. – Leave the gallery. My reputation is built upon how fairly I treat my clients (and artists), and it is far more valuable than any one artist’s work.

      I do not own a gallery, but my prices are the same everywhere my work is shown; on my website, art fairs, galleries and exhibitions. I have written language into my own consignment and wholesale contracts that specifically states my retail prices and that they shall not be raised or reduced without my consent.

      The only exceptions are:

      A. – Discounts may be offered for limited-time events, but my net after commission will be the same as if a piece sold for full retail. In other words, the discount is absorbed by the gallery.

      B. – To facilitate a multi-piece purchase, in which case the discount (up to an agreed-upon limit) shall be borne equally by the gallery and me.

      Regarding tax, packaging, and shipping: Those expenses, in my experience, are always paid by clients (Saatchi notwithstanding).

      Summary:

      Price your work consistently in every venue in which it is shown such that you will make an acceptable profit at the highest-cost (i.e., 50% commission) venues. In the case of the lower 25% commission at the co-op, don’t reduce your prices, just consider the extra money compared to other venues as a well-deserved bonus.

  9. There are so many factors in the sale of art it is hard to know where to begin as well as know which are most important. And sometimes a sale just happens and it is hard to say what facilitated it.

    I am a photographer and 2 weeks ago I sold a 30×40 framed canvas print from my studio for $750 of a wonderful scene on the New Hampshire coastline, clouds, low tide, and brilliant green rocks. Now the person who bought it was here to see me about doing some other printing for him, saw the picture, and began to tell me about his summer cabin nearby, as he admired my picture. At end of our discussion he said he wanted to buy it.

    Now he is a well real estate developer in our area and a $750 purchase was probably not that much for him. Moreover this framed photograph had been there in my studio and was both seen and admired by many visitors for over 2 years. My wife and I do a yearly art trail open studio and I also do giclee printing for people and so we have a constant flow of visitors. Many times visitors admired the picture and occasionally commented how reasonable was my asking price, but did not buy it. It took just the right person who could make a personal connection with the scene as well as someone who had the money to purchase it but then I also don’t think money really mattered here. He could even imagine where it would go and when someone does that then a sale is going to happen.

    This kind of convergence is rare but it does happen. I have paid little attention to lowering prices or special discounts as a technique for expanding my sales. Rather I prefer to stay within the range that other artists in my area are asking for their photography and price accordingly. I also factor in how much time it has taken to make the work as as a large detailed picture speaks for itself as to the effort an artist has expended to create the work.

    I also get occasional questions about how long it took to make a print but I prefer to think that a visitor is rather asking about this as just a way of learning more about me the artist. And I tend to think meaningfully connecting with the people who see your work is really the best way to promote the selling of your art.

    I have also heard of many instances where one elevates the price of an object for sale and suddenly sells it faster, and this is not just for art. Maybe I will try upping my 30×40 framed print prices of other landscape photographs and see what happens.

  10. So true, Jason, what you say about lower prices hampering sales. I came to understand the downside of setting prices too low from the experience of an acquaintance of mine — a talented photographer. When he entered his first art fair, he was afraid he would discourage sales if his prices were too high. So he deliberately set his prices lower than what he felt they should be. A couple came into his booth and fell in love with the large, framed photograph that dominated his main display space. A sale seemed all but certain. When they were told the price, however, their demeanor suddenly changed; they appeared to lose all interest in the piece. Somewhat surprised at this, he asked if they felt the price was too high. They said, “No. We thought it would be the perfect way to fill the wall space above the new sectional couch in our great room. But there’s no way we will spend more for a couch than for a piece of art.” Lesson learned — the hard way!

  11. Yes,this is an interesting piece of news and I did took some notes ; but I also, understand that there is no such thing as an/the art market; it’s an individual thing where each artist has his/ own market…? Where by in the same environment one artist work will sell,while another artist work don’t; so,it goes to show how unpredictable it can be.

  12. it seem to like i have the same problem in figuring what price i should put on a painting what prie should you put on a acrylic painting 18×24 or if you did it pastel or water color the same subject ans same size? what I think if you found out a little something about the buyer.this would help but the question is now what questions come you pose to a buyer to come to some sort of pricing to offer? well any way i did learn something from this sharing of information , thank you, ROBERT. T. LAWSON SR

  13. A good art friend sold her paintings primarily through art fairs. She had a painting that hadn’t sold for 3 years – despite her changing this and that on it. Well, in a huff of disgust, she tripled the price, sat down in her chair and a man walked into the booth, pointed at the painting and bought it. It was the price.

  14. I do have one exception to the points you make about pricing. If the work is over two years old and I still think it is a strong piece, I will price it lower. If an older work is no longer up to snuff, it gets shredded or repainted. If anyone questions, I tell them the truth that it is older work that just hasn’t found its home yet. People are happy to get a ‘deal’ and it also makes them interested in my current work.

  15. I agree that collectors of Artwork do perceive that the quality of a piece of Art is reflected by the price points. I have gradually raised my prices over the last year & it hasn’t damaged my sales in the least…

  16. It has been hard to determine the correct pricing. Hopefully we each start out with doing our homework and determining the correct starting point and have increased the prices over the years. With a career going on 45 years from beginner to professional, many ups and downs in the economy have taken its toll on the selling of artwork. But, still working and in business is a good thing. At the point now, it is hopeful that raising the prices will not hurt the customer base. I feel I have not kept up with pricing as well as I should have done. All the points raised in the article tell me I might not have done the best job of keeping up with pricing for my own work. It is a scary thing as many have said. And, I did raise my prices a small percentage last year, and am doing so again this year. Takes a leap of faith!

    And this brings up the issues of whether to destroy work that is good, but still lying around having not sold, having been the round of the galleries and shows … drives me insane! The discussions among many about not having a “sale” figures into the equation also. When we run out of room … which I think I am at my limit… what to do? I do relegate unframed older work to a body of work I call “studies, exercises and experiments.” I sell these on Etsy. And I do sell sporadically there, sometimes regularly, and sometimes with months between. I can relate the lack of sales probably to not doing enough promotion.

    I believe that when sales are slow, it is time to do more promoting. And it is time to do more storytelling, by blog and by newsletter, instead of lowering prices. I’ve heard “do not have a sale” and have pretty much followed that advice. Though saying this, I do plan to have a clearance sale only to my family and friends… not to the public. Scary, but a must! Can you say conflicted over what to do? I am!

  17. So…how do you research prices? I’m in a rural area. There are a couple of galleries I could visit, but that’s it. Many don’t include prices online. I don’t have access to prices from art fairs. I guess I just scavenge for what information I can get.

  18. As to the question of how long did it take you to paint that. My average is 40 hours or so, but if I include all of the hours needed to train and study to get to that point maybe I should say 10,040 hours.

  19. When setting up my price tags, I sort of have a formula – mostly to be able to justify if anyone asks, but so far no one did except for artists friends who also struggle with price tags. Time of preparation/research/whatever you need to do to create that unique piece of work, involving thinking + time of work (much shorter than preparation, turns out), size, materials, then if gallery you do x2 depending on % a gallery would charge. Bottom line should be: are you happy getting that amount considering all efforts + taxes you would have to pay?
    I tried to compare my price to other artists showing at galleries. Not making me happy seeing some good young artists undervalued, then something I consider crappy overvalued, and everything in-between barely fitting into a rational scale.

  20. I do bronze sculpture with lifecast plasters as the initial starting point. Everyone loves my best, most expensive, signature piece, “Puzzle Me”, but it hasn’t sold yet. I had a visitor to my studio tell me that she would buy it, if it were made of a “cheaper” material. I didn’t respond, but should have said, “If I made it from a cheaper material, the price would be higher”. Or I could have said, “I’ll give you a discount of the exact amount that the material cost me”. People don’t have the faintest idea of the value of the artist’s time. When I finally sell that piece, I will realize about $7 per hour of work. I think I’ll boost the price by 10% to see what happens. Then I’ll be making a little less than $8 per hour.

  21. I live in a small market with hundreds of artists and the pricing question comes up all the time. I constantly am suggesting to younger artists that their prices are too low but they just are hungry for a sale.
    I like the concept of pricing higher with room to bargain once someone picks it up and seems interested. Try asking a lawyer to lower his price by 25%, it’s not going to happen, but people always expect an artist to take 20-50% cuts. It can be very frustrating.

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