Want to know a formula for pricing art? Stop looking – they don’t work

January 23, 2021
by Susan J Mumford

I’ve come across a number of theories on pricing art. And you know what? None – and I mean none, of them work.

Here’s the art pricing formula I’ve come across most often:
You come up with a base asking price for the smallest sized piece in a series, and multiply according to size increase from that point. For example: consider the smallest piece to be a 25 x 25 cm painting that you price at $250. According to the formula, a piece twice the size would be double the amount at $500. 

It seems straightforward, right? However, easy doesn’t mean correct, and here’s why you’re urged not to use this mistaken ‘formula’: 
The pricing structure doesn’t have buyers or the art market in mind. And worse yet, continuing to multiply figures based on dimensions results in overpricing pieces as the physical sizes increase. 

If formulas don’t work, how can art be priced? 

Consider these factors as starting points: 

  • Medium used (for example, works on paper typically command lower prices than paintings on canvas);
  • One-off work vs. limited edition print or sculpture;
  • Original vs. reproduction prints;
  • Size of work (as the market values larger pieces at higher amounts, with the exception of “miniature paintings” and other such considerations, which require the education of prospective buyers);
  • Experience and reputation of maker;
  • Output of artist (as some artists are prolific, while others aren’t); and
  • Expense of materials and process. 

With the above in mind, here’s the ticket to pricing:
What the market will pay.  

This requires thinking about the marketplace in which you’re offering pieces for sale (a small town vs a gallery in an international city) and what the going rate is for art works along the lines of what you make, with the above considerations in mind. After testing prices, you can establish consistent pricing so that your art has established “value”. Only once there’s clear value to pieces are you in a position to gradually increase prices and offering a return on investment to buyers. 

What about profitability, then? 
Once you determine prices that make sense, calculate profit by deducting direct costs from selling prices. Based on how much you estimate that you can sell, is there enough profit to pay for expenses and overheads? The resulting calculation might require changing suppliers for materials, and many artists find that in their earlier years, there’s not enough supply and demand to be able to price works of art to make immediate financial sense to go full-time. The solution often includes having a range of income streams, for instance, greeting cards, reproduction prints and custom commission services, as well as maintaining a “day job” while building up the artist business. 

Consider one landscape painter who spent the first decade of her artist career juggling an IT job. Having built up savings, she took the plunge to become a full-time artist and started selling oil paintings like hotcakes in small village cafés, for $75 a piece. She worked fast and sold a lot, which meant that the financial model was based on selling a high quantity of items. Today, her large oil paintings are selling for $3,500 each, and some original clients are still buying works. As demand increased, prices did, too, and today she makes a full-time living as a professional artist. 

While you might not start selling pieces as low as $75 a piece, it’s important to remember that you don’t start at final asking prices, either. By raising amounts gradually over the years, existing collectors will be delighted to see that the investment value of their purchases is increasing. Better yet, this will encourage them to buy more. 

What’s the take-away, then?
Price works according to the market, in combination with important factors such as output, medium and your own experience. While it often takes time to become a full-time artist (noting that many artists continue teaching as they love it plus it provides inspiration), slowly but surely, you build a following, increase prices, and boost profits. 

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Susan J Mumford

SUSAN J MUMFORD is a serial entrepreneur in the art market. She ran a gallery in Soho, London, from 2006-11, which was followed by the creation of the Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) in 2009, an international network with multiple chapters. In 2012 she launched Be Smart About Art, an online-accessible professional development platform. Then in 2018, she embarked upon her latest enterprise, ArtAML, which unites technology and art market know-how to help dealers keep dealing and buyers keep buying in the face of anti-money laundering legislation that hit the art market in 2020.

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