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How to Put a Price on Art

How to Put a Price on Art

By Ed Mahon, Centre Daily Times, State College, Pa.

Artists spend days, if not months, creating the pieces they bring to shows.

Figuring out what to put on the price tag can be just as tricky.

“That’s just so tough,” Marguerite Swope said her inside her booth along Fairmount Avenue, where she is selling hand-sewn scarves for $20 and cowl tops for $47. “And it’s hard because you know what effort you put into it, and you want to charge a really high price, and the market won’t bear it.”

The more than 300 artists who have been selling their work at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts are looking to do better than break even.

“To do a show like State College, an artist is probably going to lay out $1,000 to $1,500 in expenses, with no guarantee of selling anything,” said Tim Pollock, a Penn State professor of management and organization — and the husband of an exhibitor. “And that doesn’t include the risk of a storm coming and blowing everything over.”

There are some general trends Pollock’s observed from his travel to shows: Works on canvas tend to sell for more than works on paper. Decorative items sell for more than ones that might be both decorative and functional, like a bowl or vase. Multiple reprints can hurt the value of an original. The best way to figure out a good price is to observe what peers are doing at other art shows. The booth space, the tables and cover for the booth itself, transportation, lodging, materials and insurance all go into the price.

But artists face plenty of ambiguity and room for compromise. And while the pricing problem boils down to the fact that a piece is only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it, figuring out that exact number isn’t easy — and has become particularly challenging during this recession.

“Making these little pieces that are affordable, they’ve really saved me at a couple shows,” said Bob Richey, a 60-year-old retired aerospace engineer and painter from Warminster.

At his booth this past week, he sold pastel landscapes with sharp colors. One of the most expensive pieces, the 18-by-18-inch framed “Out Of The Way Hillside,” went for $900. But he also had dozens of unframed 4-by-4 miniatures that sold for $65, pieces that he can often finish in a day or less.

“I learn a lot from them,” Richey said. “With the smaller ones you’re willing to take risks, try new colors. … It just makes you loose.”

Those small ones can also build a customer base — Richey figures half of his sales are to repeat buyers.

Next: Bargain Backlash →

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