Whether or not somebody likes a work of art is essentially random — a combination of personal taste, current mood, and whim.
Whether a work of art has the potential to appreciate can be influenced by many factors. Current events, celebrity attention, and cultural significance cause sudden spikes in value of a given work of art. But other factors contribute to its value more reliably. Art appraisers, like those who are building the largest art collection in the world, agree you should focus on 10 details when appraising artwork and deciding whether or not to invest in a particular piece.
1. A Certificate of Authenticity
It’s essential to know the artist who made the artwork and if the item is scarce. Authentication can be straightforward if the artist is still alive but complicated for artists with large bodies of work or who are no longer living.
A certificate of authenticity is standard in the sale of any significant artwork. Any serious up-and-coming artist should know enough about the market to provide one automatically or when asked.
Art is just like any other physical purchase you make as an investment. If it gets damaged, it loses value. Even restored art loses value, and some collectors only purchase art that has never been restored.
That said, it’s possible to pick up a “fixer-upper” artwork just like you might flip a house. A professionally restored piece of art by a qualified professional won’t be worth as much as the same work if it was never damaged.
3. Edition Status
Original, one-off artwork has only one edition: the first.
Others, like paintings and woodcut printings, can be created multiple times, either in batches or in a numbered series. In those cases, the lower the edition, the higher the potential value of the work.
It’s similar to how rare books are valued. A first-edition printing of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” costs much more than a mass-market paperback printed last year. A third edition falls somewhere in between.
4. Market Conditions
Market conditions impact the value of everything, and works of art are no exception. You might own a beautiful and authentic piece of art created by an influential artist, but it has very little monetary value if nobody’s interested in buying it.
The art market is fluid and highly subject to market fluctuations. Luxury items like art are some of the first things people do without during a decline. They’re also one of the last things people start buying again as times get better.
5. Ownership History
Also called provenance, this is the line of custody and ownership the piece of art had before you purchased it. For an original bought off a gallery wall, the history is simple: first the artist, then you. Older art has gone through many hands, some of which might impact its value.
For example, if you can’t prove a piece of art has legitimately changed hands, it could be valued lower. It may even be seized, or you could be forced to return it to a previous owner or estate. By contrast, if a famous or influential person once owned a piece of art, it can increase its value.
Here, one other consideration is the “catalog raisonne”: an official list of all works by a known artist. Not all works end up on that list. An artwork’s presence or absence on it can further impact its value.
Famous and talented artists can consistently produce substandard works. Derivative and amateurish artists can sometimes create something extraordinary. As with any other investment, the higher its quality, the higher its value.
That said, quality in art is more subjective to taste and trends than, say, the quality of an automobile. Also, the quality of materials, presentation, and even publicity can impact the value of an artwork.
On the one hand, size matters. Bigger is not always better, but more significant works require more skill, consume more materials, and better command the spaces where they’re displayed. For these reasons, larger art pieces are usually worth more and may appreciate more rapidly.
On the other hand, larger pieces are harder to store and have a smaller body of people interested in buying them. They may command a higher price but have a lower demand.
8. Subject Matter
Subject impacts the value and appreciation of art in two ways.
First, some subjects typically sell well and others poorly. Consider, for example, the likely market for nudes of a young woman vs. nudes of an older man.
Second, some subjects’ impact and popularity change with the times. This doesn’t necessarily qualify or disqualify a painting from the investment but can inform your strategy for investing in a particular work.
Like a subject, the technique used to create a work of art can impact its appreciation in two ways.
First is the rarity and difficulty of the method. A simple watercolor, for example, typically appreciates more slowly than a picture taken with a rare, multistep process.
Trends in the market may also impact price, with specific techniques receiving broader coverage, becoming associated with something unsavory, or otherwise slipping in and out of vogue. This doesn’t make or break a deal for a particular work but can inform your investing strategy.
10. The Artist
This is the most crucial factor in appraising art, but it’s more complex than you might think. Naturally, a Picasso or Homer Winslow painting will have high value and appreciate more reliably over time.
By contrast, working pieces by artists at the cusp of being discovered can be purchased at a lower price and potentially appreciate at a much higher rate. Or they can fail to launch and lose all value in months.
Your Mileage May Vary
Although the factors above can help inform your decision in an art investment, they aren’t the only things that influence market value for art. Consider these a starting point in your due diligence.