Understanding When It's Time to Sell Your Art

As an experienced art collector, you like to feel fairly confident about the artists you choose to support, and which art purchases hope to offer the most value in the long-run. But when it comes to capitalizing on that work of art and turning your prized collection into a valuable source of revenue, identifying the ‘right time to sell’ may seem like an elusive endeavor.  The art market is fickle, and tied to so many underlying factors - the strength of the global economy, the marketing push behind a notable artist’s work, and positioning each piece within a suitable auction venue, to name a few. With all of these variables, it’s not always easy to discern when is the right time to sell your art at auction.

There are a variety of key indicators that suggest a sale should at least be considered.  "I always tell clients - seasoned and new - that the reasons to buy are also the reasons to sell," says Aviva Lehmann, the Director of American Art, New York for Heritage Auctions. "The five key components of what makes a work of art desirable are: Provenance, condition, rarity, quality, and taste.  If you have a work of art that checks off all five of these components, the work will sell well. Period."

Another key indicator that it’s time to sell? Lehmann also notes that collectors may consider selling when they’re planning for the future. “Another sign that now is a good time to sell is if you are reaching your golden years and your children have zero interest in your collection,” says Lehmann. “Do not leave the task of selling to your children. You experienced the joy of putting your collection together, you should experience the satisfaction of selling. Control the experience.”

If you think certain key works within your collection may have risen in value, your next chapter of life has different demands, families have different taste, or you’ve simply run out of wall space  - you may wish to consider the following questions in determining whether it’s truly time to sell a piece of art from your collection.

 Though still very early in her career, figurative painter Chloe Wise is gaining a lot of attention on social media and in the press, and her primary market prices reflect that success.

Though still very early in her career, figurative painter Chloe Wise is gaining a lot of attention on social media and in the press, and her primary market prices reflect that success.

Is the Artist Currently Grabbing Attention?

In the art world, aesthetic value and market value are rarely one in the same. Instead, market value is often tied to an artist’s perceived prominence within the art world, suggesting that more buzz around an artist could mean an opportune time to sell. Has your artist recently unveiled a new successful exhibition in an esteemed venue? Are they grabbing a significant amount of press around a new series? Is the artist celebrating the opening of a big museum show? Is there new scholarship surrounding the artist, such as a catalogue raisonne, or academic paper? Have they been offered an important residency or grant in pursuit of their practice? If you’re checking many of these boxes, it could be a strong indicator that your work would do particularly well at auction

Now, a word of caution, however, against getting too stuck on ‘buzz’ around an artist, particularly if the artist is still emerging. Some indicators are stronger than others, and it’s not uncommon for young artists to receive a ton of attention early in their careers, only to fizzle out as the years progress and their evolution as an artist remains stagnant. Consider whether an artist whose work you’re aiming to sell has managed to escape this paradigm by consistently creating fresh, iconic series while building on the ethos of their practice.

 Because there's a limited supply of John Currin's work on the market, his paintings usually achieve top-dollar. Pictured here: "Rachel in Fur" (2002).

Because there's a limited supply of John Currin's work on the market, his paintings usually achieve top-dollar. Pictured here: "Rachel in Fur" (2002).

Did the Artist Achieve New Heights on the Primary and Secondary Markets?

When it comes to the primary market and the first time a piece sells, it’s not always easy to decipher an artist’s value. Because galleries and dealers aren’t required to report any sales prices, it’s hard to identify whether an artist’s market value is truly going up. However, there are other ways to determine an artist’s success. For example, having a healthy flow of solo exhibitions at prominent galleries or museums is always an important indicator of growth. Having solo shows at multiple galleries and museums around the world is even better.

Of course, one of the strongest indicators that it might be time to sell is the news that one of your artists recently achieved a record-breaking sale at auction. While this is certainly great news for the overall long-term value of the work, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should sell all of your pieces by this artist at once . Let’s say your artist recently shattered expectations and well exceeded the auction house’s pre-sale estimate. If everyone rushes to sell, then the market becomes flooded with pieces by that artist, and the law of supply and demand will most certainly kick in. There’s a reason dealers and collectors tend to be wary of too many pieces available by any one artist on the secondary market - ultimately, an artist’s availability directly correlates with the price they’re able to retrieve at auction. People often want what they can’t have.

 Enjoying recognition for her work later in life, Cuban artist Carmen Herrera is currently experiencing what the art world refers to as ‘the death effect.’ Photo courtesy of Elle magazine.

Enjoying recognition for her work later in life, Cuban artist Carmen Herrera is currently experiencing what the art world refers to as ‘the death effect.’ Photo courtesy of Elle magazine.

Is the Artist Experiencing a Major Life Event?

One of the most crucial factors to weigh when determining whether it’s time to sell a work of art is whether the artist has recently experienced a major life event. At the risk of being trite, death is an instance in which an artist’s work would be considered more valuable, assuming they enjoyed a fairly prominent career before their passing. Interestingly enough, this effect starts to take place as an artist begins to age, and their perceived ability to continue to produce slows down, or becomes finite. If an artist was well regarded during their lifetime, then their work only becomes more valuable upon their death because production will obviously cease to continue. Likewise, the same warning regarding flooding the market remains true - you won’t want to rush to auction without first carefully considering what else is being sold. Other major life events to consider are whether the artist has recently made any major career moves, such as signing on with a big new gallery, joining a prominent board, or a highly successful exhibition.

Of course, answering all of these questions on your own isn’t always the easiest (or most pleasant!) undertaking. It requires a lot of research and an understanding of the nuanced complexity of the art market, which is usually fairly opaque. We highly recommend working alongside an art advisor if you’re considering selling a particular work, so you can appropriately weigh your options and make a determination on whether it truly is the best time to move forward with a sale. As always, Art Market Liaison is available to answer any questions you may have regarding the process! You can get in touch with us here.