Assessing worth of an artist's work during or after his lifetime

One of the great ``facts'' of the art world seems to be that artists are not as appreciated in their own lifetimes as later on. It's only later, so the theory goes, that their works take on any real value. Certainly, this has applied to some quite important artists, Gauguin and Van Gogh, for instance. Both 19th-century painters were outcasts socially, and their artwork was held in even greater contempt. At their deaths, they were penniless, lonely and isolated figures.

True recognition came after these painters died, as the works began to sell and their names found a place in the history of art. This has led to the somewhat bizarre conclusion that art must naturally increase in value after an artist's death.

Many dealers note that there is a considerable amount of speculation in the works of older artists, leading collectors to start hoarding works by older artists.

``I would have to say that a deathwatch does exist for many older artists,'' Robert Schonfeld, former head of the appraisal department at Sotheby's and now a private dealer, points out. ``This has been common practice as far back as I can remember. All dealers and collectors anticipate changes in circumstances which make works more available or more valuable.''

The concept of the artist whose death gives his works new life is, however, more mystique than truth. In some cases, prices go up gradually (or eventually). In general, demand drops and the prices go with it.

Most artists who were ignored during their lives remain so afterward. Even well-known artists, with reputations and critical acclaim during their lives, can soon be forgotten. Often, the reputation and fame rested on what was perceived as a potential for doing something great -- after they are gone, the potential is lost and they will be judged only by the works they have done. Sometimes the reputations are based on the artists themselves, for whom the sale of their art and their selling it are part and parcel (like a publicity tour for an author). Without the artist, the works may just not sell.

``An artist is like a walking billboard for his works,'' Lawrence Fleischman, an art dealer, says. ``He's there to be seen and interviewed and to talk about his works. When he's not there, works can be pretty hard to sell.''

Mr. Fleischman has handled works by a number of artists for whom interest seemed to die with them, including Ivan Albright (1897-1983) and Philip Evergood (1901-75). ``I still think he's a great artist,'' Fleischman said of Albright, ``and no one can ever take that away from him. Collectors may just take a little longer to realize it.'' He added that his ``gut feeling'' was that Evergood's prices have dropped an average of 10 to 20 percent since his passing.

In almost all cases, an artist who is gone comes to be viewed differently. While he or she was living, there was a certain degree of excitement surrounding new works and changes in style. After their passing, artists are measured in the light of art history, and their stars may not shine so brightly.

Possibly, the biggest bottoming out of a market was felt with the works of Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Interest in Rockwell had been strong after a 1971 auction at Sotheby's in which one of his paintings sold for $40,000 -- more than twice what had been estimated. This had been the first time any of his works had gone to auction, and the results were a surprise to those who never before took Rockwell seriously. Prices for his paintings went up continually in expectation of enormous profits. When he died, however, the market turned out to be all sellers and few buyers, and prices have never quite stabilized since then.

A variety of things helps determine whether an artist's work goes up in value during or after his or her lifetime, and this makes speculation particularly risky. Scarcity -- that is, an artist no longer being alive to paint or sculpture more works -- is a function of the supply, but it is demand that gives value. It is not uncommon for auction houses to refuse to handle certain artists who, they feel, will not sell, and this may increase their obscurity.

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