How much is the art in the window?

The Pricing Game
Pricing Secrets Artists Need To Embrace

A message from art publisher Eric Rhoads

Let’s play a couple of games….

Imagine for a moment that you’re fairly wealthy. Not billionaire wealthy, but wealthy enough that you don’t need to think twice about going out and paying cash for a new $80,000 Lexus.

Most artists price themselves too low because they can’t relate to wealth, so it’s important to imagine yourself with wealth for this exercise. Are you there yet?

Now imagine that you go to the flea market on a Saturday. There is a guy at the flea market selling what he claims is a brand-new Mercedes for $13,000. Would you consider it, even for a moment?

No? Why not?

Because something smells rotten. First, we all know you can’t buy a new Mercedes for $13,000. Second, would you buy a new Mercedes at the flea market from someone you don’t know? Even at a full Mercedes price? Probably not. Your brain won’t let you buy when a sale doesn’t pass the smell test.

Next game.

You’re still wealthy. Now imagine that you walk into a very stylish blue chip art gallery in Manhattan. You see two paintings you love equally. One painting is $65,000 and the other one is $2,500. You can only buy one. You can afford either. Which will you buy?

Why did you pick the $65,000 painting? There must be a reason.

The reason is that your smell test tells you there must be something wrong with the $2,500 painting. If I like them both equally, why aren’t they both expensive? Your brain tells you it must be better because it’s more expensive, since it’s from a quality source.

Our last game.

You’re still wealthy, and you see a screaming commercial on television for an art sale at the Holiday Inn. Though you know it’s going to be schlock art, you go for amusement, and maybe to pick up something cheap to hang in the basement. Most of the paintings are $125 framed. One painting is $50,000. Would you buy the $50,000 painting?

Why not? The price doesn’t match the environment. You’re probably thinking it’s a fraud from a company that will be on the road with your money by midnight. It doesn’t pass the smell test.

The Psychology of Price and Environment
In game one, your brain told you the price for a new Mercedes was too low. It also told you that it’s probably stolen, because lots of things at a flea market might be stolen. Any time your brain faces something that doesn’t equate, it rejects it to protect you. If you had seen a new $13,000 Mercedes at a credible dealer, you still would have asked yourself, “What’s wrong with it?” But you would probably trust the dealer and their reasoning a little more, because of the trusted environment.

More artworks don’t sell because they are priced too low, and are not priced for environment.

Wait, Eric. How can this be true? People always want a bargain. So a lower price is always better than a higher price, right?

Nope.

Case in point? I’m more likely to pay $80,000 for a new Lexus than the same model at $40,000. The discount is too deep, so something must be wrong. It must have been wrecked. Yet a price of, say, $68,000 seems like a legitimate discount. My “BS Meter” tells me something is wrong when the discount is too deep.

A Famous Painter’s Story
I swore I wouldn’t use this man’s name, but he is a household name among living painters today. One day at lunch I asked, “How did you get your prices so high?”

“Eric, in the 1950s I had a painting sit in a gallery for two years unsold. It was a great little painting. I was young, but my work was already very strong. I wasn’t very confident, so it had a $1,000 price on it. So after two years I pulled it out and put it in another gallery. I figured what the heck, and I put a price of $3,000 on it. It sat for a year unsold so I moved it to another gallery and put a price of $6,000 on it. A year later it still hadn’t sold. Out of frustration, I sent it to another gallery, put an $18,000 price on it, and it sold within three weeks.”

True story.

When you pick up this painter’s Rembrandt-like works, they look like they should sell for a lot of money. If you’re a person with taste and money, there must be something wrong with a painting that’s too cheap. A price of a painting must feel right. If it’s too cheap or too expensive, it won’t sell. Which is why my artist friend’s painting didn’t sell at the first two prices.

Environment Impacts Price
Why can a 5th Avenue boutique with a name brand get $10,000 for an item you can buy in the garment district for $500? It’s all about the strength of the environment (which equates to a strong brand to trust). It’s a combination of neighborhood, quality decor, and reputation (which is brand and trust).

It’s not unusual to see someone walk into a beautifully decorated gallery and drop $200,000. That same person may walk down the street and feel reluctant to spend $5,000 in a shabby gallery. That’s why Lexus dealers and blue chip New York art galleries spend a fortune decorating their showrooms. Environment commands higher prices.

I know a New York dealer in an elegant setting, with French marble stairways and beautiful fabric walls. They can command a considerably higher price for a painting because of their reputation, which has been built on environment and brand trust. Even telling a knowing friend you bought a painting from that gallery sends a signal that you must have spent a fortune. That’s important in some circles.

Frames Are Like Environment
One dealer friend told me he had a $14,000 painting that sat unsold for a year. Before sending it back to the artist, he put the painting in a $5,000 frame and put a $40,000 price on it. It sold within a week. He increased his profit with the quality of the frame.

Quality art buyers often judge an artwork by its frame. If it’s in a low-quality frame, how good can the painting really be? High-quality frames make a huge difference in perception and the ability to get a high price. It’s why there are frame dealers who create million-dollar custom frames and can’t keep them in stock.

What does this mean to you, the artist?

1. It’s a lot easier to make a living on high prices. You don’t have to produce as much work.

2. Most prices set by artists are rooted in their own insecurity.

3. Your gallery partner has to have their mind wrapped around your pricing. If they don’t believe they can sell it, they won’t. Make sure you have a gallery willing to ask high prices.

4. Some galleries won’t even consider representing you if your prices are too low. Why bother? It’s too hard to make money on inexpensive paintings.

5. Yes, price matters in a bad economy more than it normally would. BUT in a bad economy there are more wealthy buyers than lower-end buyers. Wealthy people usually want quality, and, to them, price equates with quality.

6. Your prices cannot be inconsistent. You cannot have low prices in one gallery and high in another or online. Be consistent.

7. Pricing takes guts and the right environment.

Should You Raise Your Prices?
I cannot tell you to raise your prices. Most (not all) the artists I know could be getting 100%-500% higher prices without much resistance. Yes, your work has to be quality, but most of the artists I know are underselling themselves because they fear what will happen if they increase their prices. Are you worth it? It’s worth strong consideration.

Eric Rhoads

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