Contemporary Art at Estate Sales

contempoary art logo for article about selling contempoary art

What to do with it, How to sell It…

Here is an email I received today:

Dear Martin,

Let me begin by saying thank you, your website is amazing, and you seem very approachable. Hence this email.

I am relatively new at conducting Estate Sales and am embarrassed to say I need a little advise. Most of my past estate sales have contained vintage or antique items, and I am comfortable researching and pricing those sales. I have an upcoming sale containing a few pieces of newer artwork (some of which can still be purchased). I know the amount these items retail for, and the value they appraise for. My question is – Is there a discount percentage formula to price the items at the sale? For example, if an item is still being sold for $3,000, should it be priced 30% less at the estate sale? I am looking for the percentage to use. My client is not comfortable with additional discounts the second day, therefore I need to be “spot on” with my pricing.

Martin, I know I should know this answer. If this is something that is covered in your book, I would be happy to purchase the material. As I mentioned I am a newer company, and am trying to learn everything I can. I am extremely professional and abide by a very strict code of ethics.

Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated, and like you I too love the estate sales industry,


This is a bit like trying to answer the $64,000.00 Question

$64,000 question

My Answer:

Hello Stephanie,

The secondary art market gauges the value of art primarily by checking the artist name against one of the large “Price Realized” auction house data bases. The Big Three Art databases are: Art Fact, Art Price and Ask Art, there are others, but these three are the ones I use. Art Fact has an edge over its competition because a user has the added benefit of being able to research almost any antique or collectible that’s been sold via auction in the last five years. By the way, these are fee based subscription services.

In other words the resale value of art in the Secondary Art Market is first tied to its auction house sales records.

If there are no auction house sales records, a condition that most contemporary art finds itself in, then the marketplace is left to fend for itself in order to establish a baseline value for the piece of art in question.

If this is the case with your clients artwork, then you will likely have an uphill battle providing them with any sort of concrete sales strategy that will result in a sales price for their piece that matches what the gallery they purchased the art piece from can generate.

Art Galleries Can Schmooze The Sale Of Art in ways that Estate Liquidators cannot…that’s just the way it is…

So, what to do? In a situation like this I like to be as transparent as a fine piece of Steuben glass. I let my clients know the difference between estate sales, auction houses, and art galleries.

Here is my order for selling a piece of contemporary art by an artist who is not listed but does have gallery representation.

  1. Contact the gallery and see if they have a market for this piece, or if they have some sort of consignment service.
  2. Determine if there are local collectors of the artists work.
  3. Check to see if the artist has a website, they may be interested in the piece, or may have a collector who is.
  4. Conduct a web search to determine if there are any collector or discussion groups for this artist

If strategies 1 through 4 do not produce a desired sales result, then it is even more likely that you will not be able to sell this artists work for anything like the amount your client paid for it, or the prices that the artists gallery is charging for the artists works.

If this is the case, and I suspect that it is, then your client has to determine whether or not they truly want to sell the piece for the “True Market Value” of the art.

If they still want to sell, try this…

  1. Gather together all receipts and documentation about the art piece.
  2. If the art piece was ever part of a gallery show, then attempt to acquire its show brochure.
  3. Document any publications the artist has been featured in.
  4. Write a very short bio to hang next to the art piece during your estate sale.

Expect to start the price at 70% of its original sales price, but please realize that the most likely way you will sell this piece of art is if the buyer has a perception that they are getting a true bargain, which will likely mean that you will have to offer further sales discounts to induce them to buy. It is not uncommon for this to result in a sales price that is 70% to 80% below what the piece might sell for in a gallery.

The sale of non listed art on the secondary market best happens when the buyer falls in love with the piece of art first, when they are floored by it, when they have the perfect place in their house already picked out…

…I always ask them, “So where do you see this piece in your house…?”

Good Luck

Martin Codina

Where to Purchase Our Book "Liquidating an Estate"

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