What Should an Artist do With a Lifetime of Unsold Artwork?

Over the last several weeks I’ve had two people approach me, either in the gallery or via email, asking what they should do with a large inventory of unsold work. In one case, the question came from an artist in her nineties:

I was never a business person of any kind, never being able to promote my art or pursue galleries in hopes of getting them to represent me. The exhibitions I had both in the U.S. and abroad ( I had shows in Austria, Germany and Belgium) came about either by my winning first prize in juried art shows (which meant one-person shows) or by being “discovered” by someone who believed in my art and arranged an exhibition for me. Now it is too late for me with your help to try to overcome my shyness and/or aversion to the business part of art and start afresh. Being well into my nineties my problem has become one that up to now I never found addressed anywhere: What does one do with a large body of work at the end of one’s life other than giving away for free one’s most treasured work to friends who would enjoy them? What to do with the bulk of the remaining paintings? What are your thoughts on this?

In another case a man who lost his wife to illness last year approached me asking how he might share his wife’s unsold work with art lovers.

In the first case I would say that it is never too late to begin promoting and selling your work, grandma moses was selling art right up until her passing at the age of 101. Having said that though, we have to acknowledge that not all of us are Grandma Moses, and that there may come a time where it is no longer the artist’s desire to chase after sales, or it may simply not be possible to achieve success in that pursuit.

The second case, when the artist has passed away, poses an even more difficult challenge. There’s a general misperception among the public that once an artist dies, his or her work becomes instantly more valuable and sellable. Unless the artist was well-known and well-established, this typically is not the case.

So what is an artist to do when marketing no longer seems desirable or feasible? What’s an artist’s family to do when the artist passes away?

I’m afraid that I’ve only had middling responses to these questions. I see the wisdom in passing as much of the work on to the people who will appreciate it the most – friends or family – but it’s often the case that this would only take care of the disposition of a small amount of the total available work. What to do with the remainder?

Ebay? An auction? A community sale? Donation? Bonfire?

What Would You Suggest?

What have you seen artists do when they are retiring from the professional pursuit of their art? What have you observed artists’ families doing to disperse excess inventory? Share your observations, experiences and ideas in the comments below.

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106 Comments

  1. I am in my 70’s and although I have marketed and sold a few hundred paintings in my life I still have a number of them lying around or in galleries. My suggestion is to swallow a little of the ego while alive and use what marketing exposure you have. Lower the price to where it cannot be refused or ignored. If there are pieces that seem unsalable, cut your loses and enjoy painting over them.

    1. In my area there is a company called “Everything but the House”. I have seen a number of my pieces selling on there on the secondary market, I would assume as part of an estate sale.

  2. I would suggest approaching a friendly auction house who would be willing to host a ‘Special Sale’ – big it up as a one-off chance to buy from the previously unseen collection of [insert name] and try selling about 30 pieces. Any more and it looks like a garage sale, any less and it’s probably not worthwhile. I would then wait a while and try another auction house in a different part of the country (if possible) and do the same again. After that, any remaining artwork you can try selling around the galleries, truthfully saying that the art has been selling well lately! Bit of a cheat, I know, but if it’s good enough, where’s the harm?

    1. The family members had already had their first choices. About a year after our friend passed away, two of his colleagues (I was one) helped his widow set up an exhibition in a nice community space with sale prices and invited all his friends. It was a real celebration of his life too. We sold a lot about 60% and the rest just got given away or sadly disposed of. There was some new framing to be done, but we put a wonderful exhibition together and it was an amazing evening which more than paid for itself.

    2. ArtGala, love the idea of the auctions.
      a sensible approach that I certainly will follow very soon with the exception that I will try Mr LeFevre last idea to “Lower the price to where it cannot be refused or ignored. If there are pieces that seem unsalable, cut your loses and enjoy painting over them.”

  3. When a friend’s mom passed, she had a sale of all the work with the proceeds going to local charities. The canvases that were left over she donated to folks who do zentangle and would gesso over the existing painting.
    With her mom’s stone carving tools and marble, she networked and found someone who knew someone who worked in and taught that medium and was happy to get the tools and marble.
    She was lucky because in both cases, her networking put her in touch with the right people to accept the donations.
    It’s an issue I’ve been pondering myself as I’m in my early 70’s and know none of my family are in the least bit interested nor would they have the room even if they were.
    I will probably follow my friend’s example, but I will do it before I pass.
    Christofer Aven

    1. I’m a resident artist and teaching in the community. I created the students competition and what they don’t know yet is that everyone is a winner and will give them my free original paintings as the prize..just too many lying around..I know when I was a student it was the greatest feeling to get something from your mentor…so I want to do it happily.

  4. I recently cleaned out my studio, clearing out unused supplies and older paintings that I just didn’t think would sell. (I sell a lot of work on Facebook and local shows)

    I prefer to paint on the thicker canvases or cradled birch boards, rather than the thinner 1/2 inch think canvases because they tend to warp if not framed. So I decided to keep the older work on thick canvas to just paint over… and the thinner ones were donated (along with unused supplies) to our local high school art department. They were very happy to receive the old paintings for paint-overs or inspiration. I don’t like to hang on to old stuff unless it has sentimental value to me.

  5. My mother painted and drew her whole live, and when she died four years ago, I had a large inventory to go through and dispense. I had considered having a show, or approaching coffee shops, but had enough to deal with getting the house ready for sale and dealing with the rest of the estate. After all her loved ones took their favorite pieces, I donated the rest to a local large charity event. Ultimately, I wanted people to have them who would enjoy them, and I do believe everyone should own “original” art. I wasn’t interested in making money from them, and was rather pleased that someone would have her charming work for an affordable price. It wasn’t easy, because they were so personal, but I feel good about my decision.

  6. Here inTexas, we would let friends/relatives buy through a one day Studio sale (find a lot white walls and hang em up.) I do this periodically and then ‘throw leavings on the burn pile.

  7. Heres a unique one. I lived in DC for 14 years and walked from Union Station to work everyday. Every morning a female artist had a new piece of art wit a sign, please take. So I did, one anyway, and some of my colleagues did as well. I think this was the case. She felt good having folks have her art. And you can’t possibly give it all to your friends and family.

    While many of these artist never marketed many are probably known in there own community. I think I agree, give it to Art Councils, Universities, theaters, or important non profit auctions to help the community. Perhaps the artist should embed a little plague with their name on the frame, otherwise your name will get lost.

    Thank you

    Lynn

  8. An artist friend of mine entered hospice recently. His family hosted a party and hung his remaining inventory. The family posted no prices on his pieces and asked simply that friends, family, and art appreciators come to the party and pay what they wished for any work. All proceeds went to a non profit agency that was important to the dying artist. EVERYTHING sold at this event. My friend had the wonderful opportunity to greet people (and say goodbye), attendees went home with lovely work (and wonderful memories), and the non profit Received a hefty donation check.
    (BTW, I have asked my family to do this for me when the time comes)

    1. Linda, that is such a lovely way to celebrate an artist’s life. I like the idea so much I’m going to use it. Thank you!!

    2. I see honor and personal satisfaction in this solution, as well as celebration of a life event. Lovely … I’m going to pass this one on to my kids to execute. Extended family can choose one, and the rest to my favorite charity.

      1. I love this one also, have family and friends chose what they want, the rest gets sold at whatever price and the proceeds to the artist’s chosen charity.

    3. Excellent idea. Love that. Also the charitable donation can be claimed against whatever the revenue was. Keep careful records of what sold for what and total of the donation. Be sure to get a charitable receipt so you can claim the donation. That way no net tax on the sales.
      And what a lovely way to remember the artist and get the art out to whoever may actually appreciate it!

  9. I periodically weed out the “duds”, paintings I no longer believe in. That helps and I know that what is left is work I am currently proud of. (An artist’s work never stops changing and growing). Gifting is nice if a friend is in love with a piece that never seems to sell. My will leaves all the electronic images copyrights to my daughter as well as all unsold artwork. I do sell, have a following and hopefully both can be useful to her. She can toss the rest I guess. I’ve made sure to put no guilt on her shoulders about the way she chooses to deal with it.

  10. As the saying goes, “I am not an artist, I am a person with a storage issue!”

    Don’t forget that if your art has a known market value and you give it away or donate it, the recipient(s) may have a tax consequence of receiving something of value.

    1. Portia!

      That is only true for the actual cost of the materials that went into the artwork–not the intangible value that the artist or collector places on the artwork . Refer to IRS rules regarding the value of donated artwork.

      1. Richard—–it has come to my attention that because of the ruling of the Supreme Court that “corporations are people” that artists are again allowed to deduct the full saleable value of their work, not just the cost of their supplies. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I noted this from an article in the New York Times. Best of Luck to us all.

  11. I don’t want to dilute the original art market with my less-than-satisfactory works, so I burn or sand those. (I also break my ceramic seconds.) I also don’t want people undervaluing original art – so I no longer give paintings away, except to a very VERY short list of special friends, highly valued charities, or worthy causes (e.g. to help pay for a friend’s husband’s cancer treatment). If I don’t hang it at home, think it is show worthy, or sell it, I will get rid of it. I do NOT want my stepkids or husband to be burdened with a bunch of unsold artwork, and I do NOT want anything less than my best work to survive me. That means a constant weeding process that keeps my inventory under control. Not for everyone, I guess, and I get the “Oooh, it’s so pretty, just give it away” thing, but honestly I feel by giving it away I am damaging the ability of myself and fellow artists to market their work, while undermining galleries, and cheapening the public’s appreciation and valuation of original works by doing so. Further, by putting less-than-satisfactory pieces out there, the public is educated to accept less-than-satisfactory work. I hope to see more artists selling and being appreciated for their effort in ways that don’t take advantage of their labors and talent. It’s difficult enough to sell even very GOOD work without competing with “free”.

    1. Casey, I admire your discipline. A friend of mine, who uses her un-rehabilitatable work as weed barriers under mulch in her garden, said there’s a reason that your less-than-satisfactory work has never sold or isn’t wanted as a gift.

    2. Casey, Dorthy and others, I really love and support your statements. Very few good works go to select charity auctions. and my not so great ones decorate my garden shed in my fenced yard until they decompose and are replaced. Keeping only good, favorite, new and fresh in my studio and galleries that represent me.
      I sincerely believe give aways etc. dilute your price base, irritate or even alienate current collectors and put poor work on display.
      Do the mulligan thing, sand, gesso and start anew on those nice gallery stretched canvases. saves money too.

    3. Yes, that is exactly the right answer I was thinking of. You articulated my feelings well. I keep saying if my original art ends up in a thrift store I am going to come back and haunt someone. I am beginning the process of taking my old work out of frames and either recycling or repurposing the work and the frames. I also refuse to sell old work for low prices. I agree with all that you say.

    4. Casey, I agree completely with your entire comment. I continually sort through my work, improving the oil paintings or covering them with something better, and sometimes just shredding my older pencil drawings. (It is “just paper”, after all!) I don’t discount work that’s been around for awhile because it teaches the public to wait for a sale. You expressed your ideas very well – thank you!

    5. Casey, I totally agree with you about not giving away the art. If someone has to pay a price for it, they value it a little more than if they get it free. I have given away my art at times when I didn’t have money to give family gifts for Christmas and or friends that really liked my piece of artwork. I had a friend offer me $500 for one of my first sceneries back in the 70’s and I told him no I couldn’t sell it but turned around and created one just like it and gave it to him. Years later, I asked him whatever happened to it as I never saw it hung on any of his walls…..can you guess? He had no idea. Same thing with most of my family members. They never hung my beautiful artwork on their walls except for one brother that loved my artwork (a lot of jealousy in my family) One brother hung it up but blacked out my name and said it came off during dusting which I had signed it in white India ink on top of black. We all know that doesn’t come out and two that I still have to this day my signature is still there and created at the same time. So I agree with you totally. I do not give away my art except once in a great while when I know it will be appreciated by the person receiving it.

  12. When musicians have finished their song, where do all their notes go? They vanish as soon as they were created.
    Why should we worry so much about saving every “note” that we paint? The moment of creation may be the only thing that counts.
    If we sell a piece then it helps us make a living. But after we die, it’s just….. Stuff.

    Give some away to those who might want it. I’m mostly a figure painter, and I’ve let a couple long time models know they can have first pick.
    Try to preserve your best pieces.

    And respectfully burn the remainder. Not trash, not recycling, not Goodwill… Burn it.
    Jeff

  13. There are many charitable organizations whose fundraising endeavors include an annual auction or silent auction. You could search out these organizations and offer some of your works to each. Although you won’t get paid for it, it is a great way to expose your art and make it possible for someone who appreciates a piece to take it home with them, often for less than if they’d bought it in a gallery, and make a contribution to a worthy cause at the same time. If you you have a lot of unsold work and a favorite charity, with the help of that organization or others, you could organize an event auction, or online event, with all funds going to that charity.

    1. Eleni, I beg to differ – you’re endorsing the “myth of exposure”; unless that auction is directed at an art-loving public, or your art ties directly to the purpose of the sponsoring entity and is likely to fund a sympathetic audience, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get much in return business. (An exception might be donating a wildlife painting to a group sponsoring habitat for endangered species, for example, or a religious-themed painting to a church group. IMHO the best reason for a donation is a sincere desire to help an organisation or cause near and dear to one’s heart or personal mission – in which case I believe they are worthy of my BEST work, not my least marketable, and I do insist on setting a minimum auction price.

  14. Being a Senior Citizen and having a studio full of paintings but not enough energy to get out there and market them, I have thought much about this problem. Having recently had health problems I observed that many hospital waiting rooms or therapy centres have nothing interesting to look at to take your mind off your health problems. When I offered to decorate the walls of a local hospital waiting area the offer was enthusiastically received. I choice suitable paintings and did the hanging with their help. They even had copper ingraved nametags placed on the works saying donated by me. It made me feel really great that they appreciated it so much to do that. I have also donated painting to decorate the Caritas eating hall for the homeless. If you look around you will probably find many places that could be improved by paintings on the walls. Being an artist its the first thing I notice whereever I go.

    1. I hope you got a charitable receipt for your donations. Otherwise you are taxed on a donation (deemed disposition) without any offsetting proof of the donation. If the recipient of the donation is not a registered charity, then you are stuck paying tax on the deemed disposition of your kind gift.

      1. Unfortunately artists can not deduct the preserved value of artwork, only the materials used. Most artists would have already deducted those costs as expenses from their taxable income.

  15. I have been creating one kind of art form or another for a long time. I seemed to have made a full circle coming back to plein air painting which I started doing in high school. I create well over 100 plein air paintings per year. After talking to my peers I came to a solution. One, I keep the ones that mean a lot to me; have won awards but didn’t sell and ones I feel I can improve upon. Two, give others as gifts to family members who enjoy and cherish them. Three, I will paint over or gesso over others. And, I often create large studio versions as well.

  16. I am an emerging artist (at the young age of 64!) and have art all over my house now that I’ve finally discovered what I was meant to do in life. Since what I do is super specialized (I create art on wood panels with colored stains – all by hand), and won’t take a picture that will do it justice no matter what I do, it doesn’t sell online very well. I only do a couple of shows a year because the stuff is just so heavy and the shows are usually a lot of physical work. So the excess art fills my halls and walls. What I have recently decided to do is a) find someone who would truly appreciate it and can’t afford it and give it to them, b) donate to a worthy charitable fundraiser and c) gift it to family if they want it. I want to be able to continue to create – as that is my nirvana – and I’m OK with occasional piece price reduction and all of the above to make room for what I truly love to do.

  17. A few options: 1. If you gesso over the “duds” but don’t need the canvases for new work, see if your local high school or Boys and Girls Club could use them for students to paint on. Same with good tubes of paint, brushes, mats, frames, etc. Many students can’t afford supplies. 2. Give some of the “pretty good” ones to Goodwill or other charity thrift shops. They will put embarrassingly low prices on them, but the charity will make a little money and the buyers will have some original art to enhance their homes. 3. Give the “better” ones to fundraiser auctions for causes that you support. Again, they may sell for less than you think they’re worth, but whatever the bid amount is will go to a worthy cause. 4. For “top quality” work, consider renting an empty storefront or other display space and having a “retrospective” show with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to buy the artist’s work. 5. If you have a few really extra-special pieces, and you are a well-known artist, consider donating them to a museum. The Met may not want them, but small regional museums have limited budgets for purchasing artwork and may welcome a donation, particularly if your work is in a category that is under-represented in an area of their collection that they wish to enhance.

    1. ShopGoodwill is the online store for Goodwill. Besides offering items for sale at a set price, they run auctions. That is a good way to raise funds for them. Salvation Army also has occasional auction items in their store.

  18. The people I give my work to wouldn’t be able to compete with those who buy art painted for art’s sake – they are surprised they like my stuff and they are proud of it hanging in their homes. They are NOT competition for the “art dollar.” That being said, I’m 75, have just entered my fourth quarter, and my will tells my survivors to first take what they want, then let friends and other family take what they want and then – and I don’t see any comments that mention thrift shops that benefit the community – that’s where my left-over work will go after my friends and family take what they want. I like my own work. I think it’s gotten “better” over the years – at least more satisfying to me – but I don’t care if there are “early Heywood’s” out there with their thin paint and shy colors. I will let my executors, my friends and family, and thrift shop managers decide what to toss and I’ll let the thrift shop buyers determine whether to paint over or hang the stuff. Thanks for helping me clarify this in my own mind!

  19. I have been a professional painter for almost 30 years. I have it stipulated in my will that my inventory is to be donated to a local University Medical Center, which has a sprawling campus. They have a limited budget for art but do have an art curator and they are always looking for donations of good quality artwork for offices, rooms, and corridors which are often devoid of any kind of decoration. I have also stipulated that the work is donated to the Medical Center to display or sell, as they see fit. It does sound moribund to be talking this way but I want my heirs to have one less thing to deal with.

    1. Have you actually conferred with them and have official permission to do this? Many educational institutions (universities, etc.) require artist to apply to donate. Some are inundated with way more generous “donations’ than they can handle. Also they want to control suitable quality.

  20. Thanks to all who contributed their suggestions and ideas because I too am an artist in my 70s and while I have not been prolific, I have been consistently productive, and I sold enough to keep my habit fed with some leftover.
    There were so many good ideas I don’t know which one to choose but I know I have to do something . I don’t believe any stone was left unturned so I know I’ll be able to put something together to reduce my inventory because like many artists the process is much more fascinating to me than even the product or what you do with it later. I have enough for the burn pile because I’ve been too lazy to gesso or paint over it So that will be my first task! gesso or paint over the duds… Lots of room for improvement there.!
    then if I get to them or don’t my daughter can give them to their school district , i’ll see what progress I make with that first step before I go on to think of what I do with the remainder I guess if I give myself a timeline to finish that piece of it it will keep me out of trouble for awhile!

  21. And for fine art photographers and photo artists with no one obvious to pickup the slack – what about all those thousands of ready-to-print photo files? Does anyone know of any repository for anything like that? This is an issue that has been perplexing me for years, and I’m not getting any younger!

    1. Perhaps donate to your nearest Arts council? They could use as they see fit. Make cards, or hold a show (perhaps with other donations they receive or solicit) such as the 6×6 my local council just had. Selling only 6×6 pieces at $36 each, they raised around $5,000, and intend to make it an annual event fundraiser to support their work in supporting art in the community.

    2. You can will your digital files , and slides/negatives, along with your computer, to whoever you want . Also your business, and copyright. All should go to one person who has some business sense plus interest in art. Too complicated if to more than one person. Also an alternate in case that person does not survive you. Be sure to have a well composed will, preferably done by a lawyer who is familiar with professional artists.

  22. When I moved I had many, many pieces that I did not want to pay to move. Yes, my family claimed several … but there were still more pieces to dispose of. As friends visited my home during the weeks before my move to say goodbye, I told them that the art studio was open with pieces on display that would not be moving with me. If any of the pieces “spoke to them” the piece was theirs to take home that day. A week before my move I took the remaining pieces and donated them to a local art society that maintained a little gallery. In this way the art society benefited from any pieces that were sold by them. After a few months the art society sold the remaining bits and pieces (frames, mats and backing boards) to local artist members for their re-use.

  23. I save my early work. I have an ARTBANK of work that can be sold. I market and promote me steady. I have found , that sooner or later art that is unsold at a time, can be sold. There are NEW eyes to see art. I have cashed in early work and late work.
    If Picasso had destroyed his inventory, he would have died a pauper. ARTBANKS matter.

  24. MY plan is to gesso the “leftovers”, where possible – and donate them to other artists – beginners or a children’s or senior art class

  25. Both my husband, http://www.arntarntzen.com and I are artists. He is a well known contemporary furniture designer and builder and our executor will hold a draw for our friends…#1 gets to pick what they want of his from our home and his studio then #2, etc. I have not dealt with my work, I am an assemblage and collage artist, but have read all the comments and now have some ideas. Our personal art collection of about 100 pieces by several different artists is willed to a young friend who has agreed to keep what she wants and to find homes among her friends who may not be able to afford “real” art and pass it on to them.

  26. First of all, donate some works to charity events, give family and some friends the option of received pieces as gifts. Or ask if family or friends are willing to store some of you works on their walls at home or in their offices. This has helped me out with especially some large works. (I’ve even had a few sales and commissions for the staff)

    As I have been lecturing locally on the Art of Inventory, I have noticed that many artists have lots of works, especially the plein air painter which can amass a large quantity of sketches. One of the best things one can have is an effective and comprehensive inventory system that chronicles the artist’s body of work. This can add an real credibility in ones work in the inventory. Without this then you just have stuff lying around in the studio collecting dust.

    One thing I’ve been working on with a local gallery and a non-profit is the do an auction of selected piece from my vast inventory(these are mostly bodies of works, I no longer produce) and we are preparing a live and online auction the liquidate my work to make room for more works in 2018.

    The proceeds will be 40 % to me, 30 % to the sponsor gallery and 30% to my selected non-profit organization. I proposed this after years in the museum field. Sometimes its profitable for all involved.

    The other option is a “C-Note” Show where every thing in your studio is $300, $200 and $100. No More no less. When someone takes the pieces tag off the wall they buy it. Then another piece replaces it. and So on.

    But above anything else, catalog your inventory well, have some special pieces (award winners) and happy sales.

  27. As someone in his 80″s I have the same issue as Jessica as a fine art photographer and digital artist with thousands of film negatives and digital images. However it is not as much of a problem as for artists and sculptors who have created physical objects. My work of a lifetime will survive for a while anyway after I depart as they are in digital form so that my family and friends will have some idea about my life as an artist. But I also have bundles of old prints some of which can probably go to my family and friends and also given away or donated or even sent to landfill. However maybe we ought to put this question aside because it is not as important as what are we doing now, as artists, with our lives, at any age. One way or another what is left behind after we are gone is not something we can really control whereas what we are doing today can be. I just have to trust that those after me, family, friends, others, will find ways to dispose of whatever I don’t take with me (good thing I can’t). And once I am gone it will no longer be a problem for me to worry about.

  28. This can be tough for those involved but if you consider that in many of these cases the artist enjoyed or is still enjoying the process of creating art then the word art becomes a verb and the artwork is essentially an artifact of the act of arting. The metric of gauging the value or importance of art by sales or financial gain really doesn’t work in cases were someone painted for year in leu of psychotherapy. The art served it’s purpose so it really doesn’t matter what you do with the artifacts. Not every artist is meant to sell or maintain a career from their art. Some of the best art probably comes from those who don’t

  29. What to do, what to do:
    In 1979, I saw an elderly gent on the sidewalk at the bus stop in deep downtown Phoenix, Arizona sitting on a old tan, metal, school chair with an easel that had a sign on it and a wooden box next to him. The sign read, Fire sale – $10.00 each. In the box was neatly, plastic covered, cardboard backed art work.
    I was curious so I stopped and talked with the gent for a moment. He seems so familiar. I brushed it off and combed through his box and picked a small landscape. I paid him and off I went.
    Well, to make a long story short. This man was a very famous artist for which his name now escapes me all these years later. How do I know this? Well, it was not on my painting. But, about a month later he was interviewed by one of local street news reporter. In the interview, he revealed a secret to his success that has stayed with me. He said, “Always be selling. The price is irrelevant. The sale is King.”
    This man sold his paintings for thousand of dollars but he was willing to sell them for $10.00 without a signature just to get rid of his inventory. Think about it!

  30. Such an interesting and relevant topic. I too am a little shy and in some ways don’t have the skill set to make small talk. Sometimes I find it even a little demeaning . Like sitting at an art show and being subjected to peoples comments who may or may not have any background in Art. Then I think dark thoughts. a plumber doesn’t have to sell his skills. ETC.

  31. I have donated some paintings to a local Hospice. Every year they collect donations from local artists and art clubs. They keep some artwork to display in the rooms for the patients to enjoy and some to auction to raise money for the Hospice. I think it’s a great idea.

  32. I’ve been wondering about this as the canvases leaning against the walls of my work room pile up–what a lot of really good ideas here. Thanks.

  33. Well this is a real downer of an article! How depressing…I’m going to burn and melt down all of mine at a big farewell party.
    Apparently, no one wants them while I’m alive and I certainly feel they’ won’t want them anymore when I’m dead.
    They might enjoy a party, however.
    I’m probably better giving a big pre-death celebration, than I ever was as an artist!

    1. Carla,
      Don’t do that. Read my post above. You could even get free publicity out of it by calling a young hunger reporter to write a backstory. Thank about it!

  34. My mother-in-law just passed away Thanksgiving week. She has 20 years of artwork. A lot of it I think is quite good. So I suggested (and her adult children agreed) for her memorial service next weekend to display her artwork like an art show and family and friends will be welcomed to take one or two pieces as a way to hold her memory. If we have left overs I am thinking of giving it to my children’s’ school for their auction.

    1. What a sweet and wonderful idea! I’m sure your mother-in-law would have delighted to have her artwork given to those who cared for and appreciated her!

  35. Such a wonderful article, full of great suggestions. I will be 77 tomorrow and have said many times that the kids will have a big bonfire when I’m gone, 😂 but having said that, I draw and watercolor for my enjoyment, the results are shown for other to enjoy and hopefully purchase. I’ve had some success and would like more if it comes, but effort must be exerted to market in some way. I love the Tulsa Zoo although I’m an hour and a half away, but have donated to them for a silent auction and am going to donate another in about a week in memory of Kofi the 18 year old lion who passed away recently. I will now sort through my older drawings and paintings and free myself of some space at the local gallery and walls of my home! Thanks for this!

  36. This is an interesting subject. Giving the better items to selected charities seems like a good idea, but I must admit to being loath to giving away (or selling at a large discount) all my “old” works. It seems disrespectful to clients who have paid, sometimes quite a lot of money, for my pieces. Also leaving the decision to family seems like an abrogation of responsibility, and a burden they probably won’t want once I have died. But I also know that some pieces which I really do not like, or feel are perhaps sub-standard, others are very attracted too. I can also see the validity of keeping a body of work “through the ages, if only to see how one has progressed. (I recently found some drawings I did at school which was actually very interesting). So, rather a dilemma. Maybe a mix of all approaches would work- keeping a few from each period, painting over some (a sensible option if you are a painter), and giving some of the best to select charities and some very good friends – if they want them of course.

  37. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I don’t have a massive inventory at this point but I had the idea of having paintings brought to my memorial or funeral service for people to pick whatever they want. A note about the availability would be mentioned in my obituary. I want to have a friend manage my website so a blog can be posted about the availability of the remaining paintings. Ask those wanting a painting to send postage and have the paintings brought to UPS or FEDEX to pack and ship out. Some will be donated to certain charities.

  38. When I die, I do not want the conventional funeral services. I want a “Celebration of Life” party given for family and friends. Tickets will be sold at the party for a small price each: the proceeds will be donated to the age-related macular degeneration research organization and drawing winners will be able to take the artwork of their choices home.

  39. Those with art work to dispose of might wish to consider approaching a local women’s refuge and as women move out of that provision into their own new homes – often with nothing of their own around them – to offer them enough art from etc stock to make each room in their new home pleasant.

  40. My dilemma of to much art that was unsold arrived early, when I needed to go bankrupt. A prolific and professionally selling artist since the mid ’80’s, I had a storage unit literally FULL of art. All of which was considered part of my assets, even if unsellable (and I had been doing serious price reductions sales). Unable to do a bonfire (I so liked that idea!) I began to cut my art up for the dumpster. Most of my work is on paper or canvas so this was easy. But as I was cutting I began to see my art in new ways, focusing on stronger composition or unusual viewpoints. Now if a painting hasn’t received much interest over a few years, I cut it up. I choose to keep the bits that are the strongest; reformatting to fit a 12×12 or 12×16 museum board ready to pop into a standard size frame. I’m selling these “recycled paintings” in my art booth for $200. or less. I’ve sold a lot of them and the best part is to many people who have never bought original art before! Many of these buyers are in their 20’s and thirties! At 65 I hope to keep painting for decades to come and I like to believe I’m developing new collectors. This way I keep my “inventory” to the strongest and most meaningful, at a manageable level; where my family and friends and a few Museums may REALLY WANT a painting or two when I’m gone. Edit!

  41. There are a lot of great ideas in here. I have had a few experiences with this issue. When I owned a gallery in Raleigh, I had many, many people come to me with the problem of a deceased relatives’ paintings (usually not their own, but their collection). I referred these people to appraisers and auction houses. At the end of my tenure, however, I had the opportunity to showcase a local legend, a man in his 90s who had helped acquire the NC Museum of Art’s first collection. He had been relatively unknown in the area for over 50 years, even though he had studied in Paris with Matisse and had known a lot of the greats. We had a book-signing for a book about his life, and I hung 5 of his own paintings from the 1950s. He was very reticent to do this, thinking no one would care, so all were marked “NFS.” One of my own collectors, however, was very, very keen to own at least one. In the end, he got two, and we were able to give that wonderful man a real thrill, and a nice check!

    In another instance, a wonderful sculptor friend passed away very unexpectedly in his 50s. The gallery which represented him offered to continue to carry his work to help his partner. His work continues to sell, several years after his death, and his style has been taken up (with permission from the family) by another artist as his “Legacy” series.

    I think the idea of a sale to benefit a person’s charity, with a celebration of that person’s life, is terrific. There are several charities I have gifted on a regular basis over the years who would surely assist in something like that, and I am sure that is the case with many artists. It seems that the key is to HAVE A PLAN, so that your surviving family isn’t left with no recourse.

    1. Carol Joy, how timely to see your letter! Ben’s memorial gathering will be on January 14 at the Gregg Museum. Hope u saw the obituary today. And yes, thinking about exactly the same issue as time marches on.

  42. Very interesting discussion. Artists getting on in years, and indeed any prolific artist who produces more than can be sold will find themselves in the situation where there is more art than can be realistically sold. Many galleries will not take works that are more than 5 years old in the mistaken belief that they will not be saleable or may be perceived as such by the public. This can lead to an untenable situation wherein mature and/or prolific artists are sitting on an ever growing inventory of unsold works. Consider the artist with 50, 60, 70 years’ worth of inventory which could be quite saleable but no place to show it: that means 45/55/65 years of unsalable work by that standard. Wow! Often by historic consideration there may be excellent works that date back many years. Unfair to artists.
    So what to do? Several issues/questions:
    1.How many works could your family logically absorb given a lack of interest, and/or lack of space?
    2. If you have a gallery or galleries, how many works could they continue to represent and would they want to do that? (Usually, galleries will only represent the artist’s estate if the artist is a big seller and/or famous)
    3.Can your estate withstand the estate tax element ? Remember that all of your art, even sketches, will be subject to a deemed disposition based on valuation as of one minute before your death. This will be determined by an accredited art appraiser on an after the death on a backdated basis. The sale prices of your works are not considered relevant as most artists undervalue their work. Also many factors are considered besides size and medium: 10 paintings on canvas all same size could be 10 different values: done at different times in the career; varying salability; varying quality; some not archival; some lacking artist certificate, etc. Also each and every valuation must be able to stand up in court as the tax department has 4 years to come back and contest the valuation (usually because they believe it is too low). So tax on the art could technically make a big dent in or even wipe out the artist’s estate! Therefore it may be a good idea to actually edit down your inventory on a periodic basis. And it has little to do with your age: sure you may be “too young” to die now but anyone can succumb to a fatal disease or an accident at any age. By the way, tax on estate will usually be at top tax bracket as everything in the estate that is taxable, even personal items, other collectibles, real estate, investments, etc. It adds up more than you would think.
    4. How to edit down: Pretend you are going to have a retrospective show of your works at a major gallery or museum. All the media will be there; it will be a very big deal. Which of your works will be the ones you would be most proud to show? Keep those. Now which works don’t look so good by comparison: you may be embarrassed to show those? Get rid of those (yes, destroy those). The rest , think about. Usually it is easier to be objective about older works than newer works. So start with the oldest and work up to the newest last. So anything you edit out will provide more money to pass on to your heirs. Think of it as helping out on Johnny’s education or whatever.
    5. Some have suggested the auction of a small amount and giving proceeds to charity. Remember that all sales are taxable; if you can get a charitable receipt, that could offset the tax. Also remember that all gifts of art to anyone, even family are deemed disposition so the valuation is taxable even though you did not receive any actual money ! Art is inventory of your business, not personal , so taxed as such. ( Unless you are a hobbyist in which case art work is considered a hobby and this not taxable if the value is under $1000 per item)
    6. Why do I know so much about all this stuff? Back in the 90’s I was a Certified Financial Planner for 7 years. I took the opportunity to learn every scrap of tax law I needed as an artist while I was at it. Now I write books for artists and give seminars on such topics. Also I have been an artist for over 50 years and have learned a lot. And yes, I edit my work way down a lot. I only keep whatever is still up to today’s standards. All of the above info and more is in my book “Tax Smarts for Artists” available through Amazon.

  43. Many thoughtful posts on this subject. I am 65 and have 43 originals on hand. Despite a drop in sales over the last few years, I am confident that they will find a home, through sale prices. giveaways and donations. My issue is a pile of lithograph prints. Some of them I will donate, but I have also sending to recycle titles that are dead stock. At the point I sense my decline, I hope to enact these decisions.

  44. A few years ago a friend passed away with several hundred framed art pieces. She told family and close friends to pick out one painting. The one I took was not characteristic of most of her work, a small landscape of guys fishing in a sunset. I hung it at my cabin. Later I found out that this painting was of her favorite spot in the world. I felt so good about my choice. She had told us before she died to hang the rest of the paintings for people to take. We hung them on walls in the lower level of the church and people attending the funeral were invited to take a painting in her memory. By the end of the day all the paintings were gone! And many people who loved her had a wonderful memento.

    1. Keep in mind that all of her art was taxable to the estate as deemed disposition (see my long post). so very generous of the family, but they are still liable for the tax on the value of all that art.

  45. My beloved husband, David A Cook (blacglass. com) died suddenly on April 27, 2017 at 73 years old so my feelings are still raw. He wished to be cremated so after the Celebration Of Life service we had the repast at our home instead of going to a cemetery. Because we had built his art studio above our garage, one side was the work space and the other side was the art display side. Instead of his art piling up in the studio and garage we chose to also display it all over our house and we enjoyed it every day as well as family and friends when they visited . At the repast family and friends were able to see much of his art around the house and in the studio. They also saw his works in progress on the work side, one being a commissioned piece for a friend who was at the repast and his last finished piece was happily picked up by a fiend who was pleasantly surprised that I allowed him to have Dave’s last finished work . So his life and art we’re bith celebrated with many saying to let them know when I would have another Open Studio (we had one every other year) because they saw pieces that they were interested in purchasing to remember him. I so wanted to say “why didn’t you say all if this to him when he was alive?” Then I remembered that he did have a ‘followong’ And a good few did let him know how they appreciated his art while he was alive! I have stayed in touch with his art associates and submitted his work to one of the art shows that he participated in annually because I want to keep his art and memory alive. I am conflicted however, because while he has many pieces, I am reluctant to sell any now because there will be no more. I plan to stay in touch with the art associates and eventually have another Open Studio to sell some and display his works.I kept Dave’s phone as a way of staying in touch with him and his art so I read this blog that he subscribed to. So first, As I still have pain and anxiety about his death, I want to thank you all of your candid comments , so timely for me as I now struggle with what to do with most of his art as well as, upon my death, what to do with the pieces that I keep. Second, please don’t leave the decision to your family, just as you make your funeral plans known, do so with your art-of all the thoughts we shared Dave and I never talked about his art disposition and since there is no paid studio space or storage, I have no deadline (good and bad) for when I have to decide. But most importantly, Dave’s art was spiritually appreciated by all who saw it. Do not undervalue the positive spirit and energy that your art brings to the world, continue to celebrate your own life by creating more art and joy for yourself and the world in whatever form makes you happy, then that positivity will be passed on to others in one form of another. Serenity…Toloria

  46. I just finished a studio clean out – something I like to do to celebrate as I pass into a new decade of creative life. For anything older than 5 years , I used to keep 10 pieces for each year, but after my first 10 years of production that was over 100 pieces of art! I have now winnowed it down to not more than 3-5 per year. It helps a lot with storage, and makes me think hard about the quality of what I choose to keep on hand in my older work.

  47. Great question! … strong interest to many. Sometimes I can’t bear to paint thinking about this very subject. That is a disservice to me as I enjoy painting so much. Much to consider … thank you for the question and many great responses.

  48. Hello from AnneAllbeury-Hock. I have been giving my excess inventory of plein air and
    original studio oil paintings to a local hospital for the .mentally challenged . The first donation was about 25 pieces and they will want more. It made me feel very happy to make this donation. Also I sand and regesso canvasses and panels. I am 87 and still
    have lots of work up there in the extra room; Thanks for this article. Anne

  49. ELDA.
    WOW WOW WOW, Thank you for so many suggestions, but why I have to worry about
    what is going to happen after I die ? my art is coming from my heart and in every
    painting is part of my mind and spirit, some body will take care of that and if they
    feel something special about my art they will take care of that. Keep painting !

  50. I had come here to read a different article and boom..there was the one I hoped had answers for me. I am 64, actively making art and showing…but not selling much (working on that). I have art from when I was in college in the 70’s, art my mother saved and was returned to me from grade school days! I have art from my return to college in 2006-09. I am not doing anything like what I have laying around in drawers and leaning against walls. Although my 2 sons love my work and my family has also loved my art…there is only so much wall space to hang. So since I rediscovered my love for oils…I am going to take the large skinny canvases off the stretchers and put them on cradled boards and paint over them in my abstract style. But that only takes care of a small amount. So this article and especially the comments section has really given me ideas. I do not want to burden family with an excess of bad art.. and I do not want to giveaway or sell at rock bottom prices work I do not want out there. So I can have bonfires!!! I will take photos of some but the rest can be fodder for collage, bonfire what ever. I am a member of a non profit watercolor society and one prolific artist died. She left her whole studio of supplies and books to the society. They set up a scholarship for young high school artists and they auction or sell her stuff at our meetings…we are 300 strong in membership. I am not sure what happened to her surviving art. A beautiful artist and family friend friend died just Friday at age 92. She had given her work away before she moved into assisted living. I had always hoped to get a piece of hers and another artist friend but I never found out what happened to their art upon their deaths. So I love the idea of a retrospective before I journey on.

  51. After college I began selling large photorealistic paintings of plants. Along with these I was also trying to sell my paintings I had done in school. It was suggested to me that having multiple styles included in my display was lowering the value of my plant paintings. I ran an ad (similar to Craigslist would be now) offering Expressionistic paintings for $25 each.
    A young couple responded an asked why I was selling them so i explained my issue. They really liked them an explained they had just bought a house and offered $10 each for all of them. When I hesitated they pointed out that said I just wanted to get rid of them. I conceded they were right and we all were happy as they loaded up their car.
    Ironically I no longer paint photorealism. All my work now is Expressionistic with much of it being figurative. No more plants. I wonder if they still have them.
    Remember to photograph your work before you sell it or give it away. You can enjoy looking at them without having to store them. Its like looking at photos of your grown kids back when they were little.

  52. I think any sort of sale or exhibit should be used to find end of life care. Being an artist, chances are we are always broke. Maybe even a show with a certain percentage going to a charity and the rest to fund the artist.

  53. I’ve been successful in donating some works to hospital foundations and to public art galleries but it doesn’t account for the mass of work that hasn’t sold since I started professional art practice over 50 years ago. It’s a serious problem. Thanks to Jessie Parker for her tax comments, above. It’s very important.
    I’ve kept all my important work (in my eyes, and in the eyes for some art institutions) which has never had a buying public. I worry about the tax department deeming them at full appraised value. Until they have sold, they are not worth anything monetarily!

    Thanks for some fresh ideas, folks.
    My best story about this is of Isobel who painted for her pleasure but was amateurish; and of her sister Edith who had at one time been assistant professor to the Winnipeg Art Gallery and after the war vetrans (WWII) came back, she lost her job to a veteran. She became my Grade 3 teacher. There was some very good work available.
    Edith died. A few years later, Isobel died. Before she went she gave all her works to artist friends who organized a charitable showon her behalf. Unframed drawings and paintings were $5 and framed ones (second hand and often in poor shape) were $10. I bought several of her sketchbook diaries for $5 each and several of the drawings and paintings.
    Isobel wanted the work to be accessible to artists; and they were sold at the Basic Inquiry Studio in Vancouver. All the proceeds went to the Basic Inquiry studio, a life-drawing society. Everybody wins.
    I’ve framed several and I just love them.

  54. When I moved to a new city, I photographed a lot of my artwork, gessoed over it and a young artist paid about $20 for each large canvas. It gave me an opportunity to get rid of some supplies as well. I still have too much of my old work and it annoys me each time I enter my studio. I’ve donated my work to hospitals and charity auctions, but that isn’t easy and be prepared to pay for appraisals for tax purposes.

    When my mother in law died I was tasked with dealing with her huge volume of artwork. At the memorial service, held in her care facility, we had a pile of her drawings and paintings so that friends and staff could help themselves. Others we donated to the facility, but it did cause some squabbles later on by a family member who felt she wasn’t given an opportunity to take more. The art supplies were donated to a local art school. They had stated they could supply a receipt for tax purposes but never did. It’s all rather sad and disappointing but ultimately I don’t regret having got rid of it.

  55. I am a bit younger, however when I had to abandon oils due to health concerns I donated those materials to a non profit foundation that was ecstatic over receiving 600 in materials to use in their classes for underprivileged children. Every year they seek out original art donations to auction for their fundraiser. Look around for worthy organizations. They will gladly accept the art and you can get a bit of a write off for “materials made to create the piece” my experience is the organizations always give a tax receipt for the value you assign the work. I know that is where all my unsold art will go someday.

  56. Don’t forget donations to Adoption Facilities that house a lot of un-homed children. If someone also takes the time to visit and hold painting sessions with them, it would be a productive activity for them. If they have already donated several pieces of artwork (tax write-off?) to the children, they will already have concepts of what kinds of things they might be able to paint. Pretty much the same would work for Elder Care facilities to encourage activity trying something new, creativity mind stimulation, and chat with others.

  57. Antonio Joseph, well known Haitian artist left an impressive art collection.
    Should they be stored in temperature controlled environment?

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