How To Make Sense of Art Prices

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Why does a detailed, hyper-realistic floral painting sell for less than a hundred dollars, while a white canvas with a single black square fetches millions at auction?

For serious art collectors, the value of a piece of art does not depend solely on skillful technique, flawless adherence to anatomical form, or even how “pretty” it looks.

Art collectors in the upper market, ones who spend thousands or millions of dollars on one painting, often also spend hundreds of hours devoted to the study of art history. Their knowledge informs their investments. They realize that truly assessing art takes into consideration what that piece meant during its time.

Was it an example of out-of-the-box thinking? Of breaking down walls, expectations? What social commentary did it make? What social IMPACT did it have?


Kazimir Malevich's iconic Black Square is a great example of this. True, it was easy to paint. But that wasn't the point. Malevich was making the statement that art didn't have to stick to the realistic, representational Renaissance paintings of the time.

Art critic Peter Schjeldahl aptly wrote: “The work... conveys sheer, surging, untrammelled possibility.” It has become identified as one of the key seminal works of modern art.

A painting's message isn't the only thing art collectors buy into. The story surrounding the painting's creation can be just as vital. Here's how one reference work describes Malevich's struggle:

“By 1927, modern art was falling out of favor with the new Stalinist government. Malevich soon lost his prominent teaching position, works and manuscripts were confiscated, and he was banned from making art.

"In 1930, he was imprisoned for two months... Forced to abandon abstraction, he painted in a representational style in the years before his death from cancer in 1935 at age 56.

"Nonetheless, his art and his writing influenced contemporaries such as El Lissitzky, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko, as well as generations of later abstract artists.”

russian abstract artist Malevich, portrait photograph

Wouldn't you have been thrilled to meet this dynamic man? And ask him about his experience?

Since that's impossible now, art lovers crave the next best thing: to own something he made. It puts them in touch with the artist and with history in a tangible way.


Another clue behind an artwork's value may be how it motivates and unites people.

Take Banksy, for example. The mysterious street artist whose true identity is still unknown started out as a graffiti artist in western England, and his rather simplistic work now sells for millions. Why?

Banksy's wet dog painting in art gallery

Banksy's most valuable work to date, Wet Dog, sold for $1.8 million in 2008.

Banksy uses fresh ways to get people together, to get them talking. For example, in 2014 he launched his famed “31 works of art in 31 days” in New York city, where he staged a street art 'pop-up' each day, posted it on social media, and challenged people to locate it before it got defaced.

Hundreds of locals and tourists flocked the streets of New York that month, some even forming search groups. These art hunters excitedly took photos, reposted them on social media, and told their friends every time they found the 'piece of the day.' It was a uniting experience for the city.

So, art collectors want Banksy works not because they are particularly skilled - many are simple stencil silhouettes - but because of how his work creates social buzz.

He sparks cultural movements. It's a point in history that art collectors see as momentous, and they want to get in on it.

Banksy's art installation in new york, the meat truck, puppet animals on a truck

As the sad little 'baaaas' from Banksy's mobile Meat Truck echoed in the streets of New York, residents were caught both laughing and moaning empathetically for the puppet friends on their way to the slaughterhouse.


Of course, one of the main reasons anyone buys art is because it makes them feel something.

A perfectly painted lavender flower may give one person a feeling of calm, respite, memories of days on the farm, while another person sees it as uninspired, cookie-cutter, flea market art. In that sense, art is very subjective. Each individual feels their own unique reaction to it.

It's when a work of art resonates with a whole generation that collectors may perk up. Whether the emotions stirred are positive or negative, the 'stirring' is what pulls attention.

Modern entertainment is full of this type of emotionally influential art. The crudely-styled characters of a show like Rick & Morty may not strike us as beautiful or evolutionary forms of animation, but in four years from 2013-2017 the series garnered a huge following. Why?

Aside from its candid sense of humor, the social commentaries it makes in each episode are so timely, so emotionally charged, and pluck so hard at the thread of human existence, you can't help but feel something - whether good or bad (...sometimes horribly, horribly bad.*)

*Though I can appreciate the artistic courage of Rick and Morty's creator, I can't recommend watching the show, lol. It does not hold back. I watched a few censored episodes and was haunted for days. Viewers beware!


So what's the takeaway here? There are various facets behind how art is valued.