The Price Is Right

Sue Wade

Tiffany Studios. A rare and important ‘Pond Lily’ table lamp, circa 1903.
Sold for $3,372,500 on December 13, 2019, at Christie’s in New York.
[This article ran in the June/July 2013 issue of The SCOOP.]

Our community celebrates the work of many talented artists who create with a host of different media. Imagine employing technique, talent, inspiration, creativity, ability, judgment, and hours of labour to build a work of art. For some artists, one of the most challenging parts about creating a piece of artwork is what to put on the price tag once the work is all done.

You may have stood in front of a piece of art that is for sale, admiring the subject matter, the technical aspects, and the beauty of the whole package. Your eye may have noticed the small vital statistics card posted beside the work that tells you who the artist is, the title of the work, when it was done, and how much lighter your wallet will be if you decide this piece is coming home to live with you. Did you think the price fair, exorbitant, or surprisingly low?

How did the artist decide what price to ask for this piece? Here, I speak for myself, as I have come to realize that there may be just about as many methods of arriving at a price as there are artists. Pricing is an art in itself, one that mostly gets easier with practice and experience as things usually do. For an artist like me who has no gallery staff to help price my work, I know I’ve got it right when my gut tells me that a buyer will be receiving fair value for this work, and when the price of this piece is in proportion to the price I’ve put on other pieces. Every now and then, however, I get a chance to work on something out of the ordinary and all bets about how easy it’s going to be to arrive at a fair quote are off. Let me tell you a little story to illustrate...

Some time ago, when my pricing skills were just being developed, my first Tiffany-style lampshade quote was requested. This is a big deal in a small glass studio. Building this sort of lampshade is quite labour intensive. Before preparing a quote for this project, I talked to the client about the design features he wanted to see. He was asked the basic questions about the desired size (huge), shape (unusual), and colours (spring tones). This was going to be a big, challenging project.

Figuring out the cost of materials and incidentals was no hardship, but what to charge for the hours of thought, research, trial and error involved in the design, and the labour involved in building the lampshade? How long was this going to take me to build and how could I be compensated for this enormous amount of work and still be fair to the customer? I was stuck when it came to quoting a dollar figure for this project, so I turned to others, visiting several places that supply materials for stained glass artists. The good folks who worked there were artists too and chances were they had built and sold a comparable lampshade or two in their careers and would be happy to divulge their magic pricing formula.

I visited four supply stores and got four answers different enough to make me wonder if perhaps all had misunderstood the question. According to these folks, this Tiffany-style lamp should cost my client anywhere between $850 and $4000. Two of the artists flat out refuse to make lampshades such as this anymore because the cost is usually more than the market can bear. The only thing on which these artists agreed is that there is no magic pricing formula. Strike one.

Googling “How to price artwork” produced 89,000,000 sites to peruse. I looked at a slew of those sites - even jotted a few notes about value and putting emotions aside and coming up with criteria. I read “do A, B and C” on one site, and “don’t ever do A or B and run as fast as you can from C” on another site. Strike two.

Because I am nothing if not determined, I next sent a survey to a dozen or so glass studios here and there around the continent, explaining my dilemma and asking for help. Uncontrollable laughter cannot be effectively transmitted via email, but I picked up its vibe when the surveys started to return to my inbox. What didn’t return to my inbox was the definitive method of pricing the project. Strike three.

The inning was over, but the game not lost, thanks to that aforementioned determination. Even though no artist with whom I spoke committed to telling me “Charge this amount for this lampshade”, there were basic pricing lessons learned in my search that are good for potential customers to know:

~Artists choose their own criteria when deciding the dollar value of their work. Cost of materials, the size and intricacy of the work, the time it will take to complete and other considerations will be weighed differently by different artists.

~There is usually a good reason for two pieces of art that share a similar nature to be priced differently. It may be as simple as that fact that Artist A used one material in the piece, and Artist B used a more expensive material. When I need blue glass for a particular panel, my choices of blue glass can cost anywhere from $8 to $50 per square foot. I like to use the glass that’s best suited to the design, but what glass I choose will, of course, make a difference in the overall cost of the piece.

~There surfaced one overarching theme in my lampshade pricing quest: Don’t undervalue your work. This is a unique piece of custom art which is being considered, neither a trouble light purchased at the local hardware store, nor the knock-off product of questionable quality produced by the truckload and sold for a fraction of the cost of custom artwork.

~Like placing a litter of kittens, artists want their work to go to a good home and really, really do try to price things fairly.

Looking at art is like listening to a story with your eyes. A piece of art should mean something, should do something to you - make you catch your breath, or relive a memory, comfort you or rile you to action... Therein lies its value, not in how many dollars it costs.

There have been people who believe they’re getting the deal of the year when they buy one of my pieces, and there have been others who, while they may have been too polite to run screaming when they saw the price on the tag, probably wanted to. For some people, the work that “speaks to them” is valued regardless of the price on the tag, and for those who don’t hear or like the story of a particular piece, the price is moot. It’s tricky, this whole pricing thing, but I can offer you - a potential purchaser of artwork -  some general advice when a piece of artwork calls you loudly enough for you to consider owning it:

Trust and respect the artists when it comes to how they’ve valued their work. For the most part, they’re real people who merit that trust and respect. Chances are, they’ve done the best they can do when they’ve put a number on that price tag, that they haven’t pulled a whimsical, outrageous number from a hat, but have deliberated and put a fair value on their piece.

Of course, you won’t know what art there is to appreciate here in Eastern Ontario unless you get out and see some. May you find many wonderful stories in the galleries and art shows and stores that dot our community this summer. Listen well.

Sue Wade tells stories in glass at her studio in Stone Mills.