How valuable is a work of art?

It is quite a challenge to measure the monetary worth of a work of art. Can, for example, a drawing executed a few hundred years ago be worth £29.7 million? Apparently so, in the case of the buyer who snapped up Raphael’s Head of an Apostle late last year. This is money well spent, a shrewd investment.
The year might still be new, but everyone in the industry is curious, excited and, in some cases, forlorn, at what the next blockbuster sale could be. It is quite the contrast to the start of 2012, where the mood in the art world was very cautious (even though the industry was in a relatively good position).
Thus caution stemmed from the wider environment. 2011 was another period of insecurity, a year that most political leaders and senior financial figures still around and trying to fix things would like to forget. Don’t talk to them about finances, stuttering economics and all that. 2012 didn’t bode well either.
Well, yes, in traditional markets, it was a sign of the same now seemingly old malaise. Art meanwhile escalated upwards and upwards. And here we are. 2013. Everyone is, therefore relatively upbeat, appreciative of the fact that, regardless of the end total of sales come December, lots of works of art will go under the hammer for respectable prices.
Some will go for much more than even the most ambitious of speculators might have forecast. Which begs the question: how much is a work of art worth? Artinfo’s Rachel Corbett recently attempted to answer this question by comparing the sale of contemporary works with Old Master pieces. The answer to the question is not immediate. In fact, there really isn’t one.
“No one’s here to debate Picasso’s standing as one of the most important painters in modern art history, but for the $8.4 million spent in 2010 on La Liseuse, a mere work on paper, a collector could have bought two major paintings by those other Mediterranean masters, Goya,” she writes, stirring the fire.
One’s disposition therefore matters in whether Ms Corbett is, by inference of how she words her argument, correct in saying that two classics trump a single modern. Yes and no. While any impassioned collector of art is appreciative of the way in which the form has evolved over the years, everyone has their particular likes and tastes. Consequently, value is subjective.
It all comes down to the individual and how much one is willing to pay for a work of art, whatever movement or time it may belong to. Price is therefore relative, if that at all. Therefore, at an extreme base level, a work is not bound by any sense of rationality, financially speaking.
The New York Times has also weighed in on the discussion, inviting members of the public to share their thoughts about the record-breaking prices that are possible today. Frank Robinson, art historian and former director of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, gives an interesting answer.
“The art market is not an ideal, academic exercise; it’s a business. People buy and sell works of art for a profit,” he proffers.
“Quality, ‘art historical importance’ and recognisable names are all factors in determining price, but hardly the only ones. Other, fairly objective criteria have always included such issues as authenticity, rarity, condition, subject, provenance, medium (etchings versus paintings) and even size.”
Some are overpriced and some underpriced he concludes, but bargains can be found. While some popular works by famous artists will always remain out of the reach of the majority of people – which is tragic – there are plenty of tremendous pieces of art out there by relatively unknown artists.
It is never about the name, regardless of how good that artist is. If a painting moves you, excites you and changes your world, it doesn’t really matter whether it was picked up for £10 million or £10. The value is in what it does to you.
Cadogan Tate specialises in art transportation, fine art storage and art logistics, helping galleries, museums and collectors manage their collections.