The impact of condition on the financial value of an artwork

As a collector you are probably aware of the fact that it is prudent to conduct price research before buying a work of art, or have your art advisor do this for you, particularly when you are spending a lot of money. Price databases such as artnet.com are helpful tools for collectors trying to make an informed decision. The numbers, however, don’t always tell the entire story. The condition of an artwork, and its effect on the work’s financial value, is often overlooked.

It seems obvious that a tear through a painting’s canvas will cause the painting to decrease in value, the amount of the decrease depending on the size and location of the tear and how well it could be restored. But there are other conservation issues that come up in art: problems inherent to an artwork or body of work that are related to the materials the artist used. Although every era of art has its own conservation issues, they are generally more impactful in certain Post-War and contemporary works than in Old Masters, where restorations are mostly considered part of the history of the artwork.

In the case of John McLaughlin (1898-1976), for example, a proponent of Minimalism and Hard Edge painting, it is easy to see that a cupped or tented canvas has a disproportionally large effect on the visual appearance of the work, because its surface is supposed to be smooth. Additionally, in contemporary art it is increasingly common for artists to use combinations of unusual materials of which the chemical proportions are not yet understood. This means that conservators today can’t predict how these materials will interact with each other over the next 100 years.

Detail in raking light. Image © and Courtesy Lowy.

Detail in raking light. Image © and Courtesy Lowy.

As a collector you can mitigate these risks to a large extent by making sure you do your due diligence before purchasing a work. Ask your conservator to point out red flags in the condition of the work you’d like to buy and ask if these can be treated successfully. With your art advisor, your conservator can asses whether these conservation issues are likely to have an effect on the value of the artwork, now or in the future. Having a team of experts available to guide you in your collecting decisions is invaluable to buying art smart.

This blog post is based on a presentation with Annelien Bruins of Tang Art Advisory and Lauren Rich, Head Conservator at Lowy.