Monday, January 25, 2010

Original Art Stories: Wither Original Art?

Just following on from last weeks entry about original art and the overhyped 'Grailpages' book. This weekend I placed a bid on three pieces of art that I’d seen on eBay and wanted. The art consisted of three separate images as drawn by highly rated professional artists, with credits going back as far as the early ‘70s in two cases, and the mid ‘80s in the other. All of the art were excellent images and I’d like to think highly desirable. My bids were pretty much what I’d expect to pay the artists for the works, one a published pin-up for a book and the other two private commissions, one featuring one artists inking over a blue-line pencil image by a separate artist and the other a highly detailed pencil commission. I placed the bids in as a snipe, set the limits and sat back to wait, as is my standard practice. The bidding on the pages all reached a certain level and then ceased, and, as with almost any auction I bid on, I expected a sudden surge as several snipes were placed at the last minute. As I normally do, I didn’t look at the auctions until well after the finish time, mainly because I didn’t expect to get any of them and as such I didn’t want to be too disappointed.

Then it happened. The first auction, for a commissioned penciled piece, finished at a stupidly low price. The commission had been drawn in 2008 and I’d been privy to the art as a scan was sent to me by the artist way back when. At the time I offered to purchase it if the person who’d commissioned it was unhappy in any way, shape or form. The price it settled for, well it wasn’t enough, but that’s what the auction finished at. I came away happy thinking that I’d done well and snared another original for the collection at a low price. I then sat back and waited for the end of the other auctions.

I do have another modus operandi when I see something I want, and that is if I don’t get it, then the person who does will be paying a high price for it. With that in mind my bid for the second piece was based on what I usually pay the artist for such art and as for the third piece, well I’ve wanted an example of this artists inking for a while now. I have a list of artists whom I want art from this year, and possibly the next, on this artist was on that list (along with Shawn McManus and a few others) and as such I felt this was a good chance to get a lovely image that I liked, so, again, the bid was higher than normal. All told the three bids combined would have reached high three figures.

The final two pieces ended almost simultaneously. To my amazement the prices were almost too low to believe. All told I’ve paid around a quarter of what I expected to, and what I was willing to pay. Now I can’t understand why. It can’t be a loss of popularity and collectability with those artists. I’d not subscribe to that at all. All three artists are popular, two of the artists are associated with major characters, and although these images weren’t of the characters they were associated with, both were recently published images. The pencil commission was from an artist know for their high quality work, particularly with commissions. So what went wrong, for the sellers, and right, for me, the buyer?

It’s been mooted that the world financial crisis has affected the original art market to the point where it’s either bottomed out or is about to. That might be true, and certainly would be a factor, but it’s not the be all and end all of excuses. Each week I see emails cross my desk from art collectors offering up their collections at fractions of what they originally paid for them, and yet still they have no takers. Some of this would surely be down to the fact that a lot of the art for sale is just not that desirable overall. Some of the art that I see for sale all looks the same – generic ‘bad girl’ images, which, frankly, don’t do a lot for me, or are by artists that I’ve never heard of. Most are commissions or recreations of other, better known, artists’ works and this must reduce the appeal to a lot of other collectors. It’s all very well and good narrowing your focus and scope to a certain aspect, artist or theme, but when it comes time to sell up, you’re relying on another person(s) having the same taste as yourself. While it’s very likely that you will come across such a person, the whole idea of maximizing your profits, as a seller, is finding at least three people to bid against each other. This is a concept that a lot of non-dealers find difficult to grasp. If they paid an artist X amount for a commission then they want X+Y back for it. They don’t comprehend that it’s more than possible that another collector might only wish to pay Y as the piece just doesn’t fit in to what they collect.

Having said that, the days are gone when someone could stumble into a deal which would see them buying a complete book by George Perez for a few hundred dollars, or the entire stock by an inker who worked with John Romita, Jack Kirby, Ross Andru, Herb Trimpe, John Buscema and a host of others for five dollars per kilo. Those deals are now ancient history, and it’s highly doubtful, in this day and age of instant information via the internet, that such a deal could happen. A collector is going to try to at least make their money back on any deal, with something to show for it, an artists representative will inflate the price to maximize the return to both the artist and themselves (they do get a percentage remember) and most dealers are from the ‘buy very low, sell ultra high’ school. If you want to dispute the latter then seriously, don’t. I recently sold a cover to a dealer in a cash deal, who promptly placed on their site with an ‘estimate’ of what they wanted for it, being an amount approximately four times what they paid. Amazingly they then sent me an email offering to sell it to me for the ‘bargain price’ of two thirds more than what I sold it for. Buying directly from the artist is a good way to go as the artist will more than likely give you the best deal, and the money goes directly into their pocket without it being creamed by a middleman. Can’t go wrong there.

My own collection isn’t as broad as I’d like it to be, but, despite appearances to the contrary, it isn’t as narrow as people might expect. There is a heavy emphasis on the artists that I like, both as artists and as people, and I tend to lean towards art by those artists. I do collect a lot of art by Norm Breyfogle, he’s a pal, and I like his art. I am aware that if I were to sell up tomorrow, a lot of the art I own just wouldn’t be of interest to other people. These pieces reflect some of the more interesting aspects of the collection, rough sketches, preliminaries and more. The same applies for my collection of Tom Grindberg and Dave Simons art, the bulk of which comprise of sketches, roughs and preliminaries. I have a fair number of Jim Mooney sketches also, along with convention sketches, roughs and the like from a wide number of other artists. Perhaps people would be interested in them, but I’d not want to hang if they weren’t.

Now I can fully understand that this is the way of the world, but some don’t. I’ve had a collector offering me the same piece of art for nearly two years now. Originally the price it was offered to me was around four times as much as the original sale price. I declined as I just wasn’t that interested, nor did I want to chase the art that badly (there was another factor into the mix which affected my decision, but that was more personal than anything else). The collector felt that, as the art was by an artist I collect, that I’d automatically pay any price. The collector was wrong in his assessment, but that wasn’t the only factor affecting my decision. Every three months I’d get an email stating that the art was still for sale, at the same price and that other collectors were very interested. I’d politely decline and suggest that the collector sell the art to someone else, but it was always there. It’d turn up on eBay and be passed in, until, finally, the collector began to reduce his asking price. I’ve still not bought it, nor shall I, for my own reasons, one of which is that I really just don’t want it. Sadly, for the collector in question, nobody else wants it either. Now this could be due to the endless hawking of the art, playing collectors off against each other, the price or the fact that it remains unsold. Any one, or all, of those factors could easily come into play.

If we assume the market for original art has dropped out due to the financial crisis then where are the opportunists? In every such financial crisis you can expect several cashed up opportunists to step in to buy as much as they can for as little as they can, with the view of ‘what goes down must come back up’ and a view of healthy profits down the track. This happens all the time in the stock market, indeed people such as Kerry Packer made literally millions, if not billions, during the financial crisis of the late 1980s simply by stepping in and buying up as much stock as he wanted, and then selling once the market stabilized and improved. Art should be no different, but there is one massive difference.

Unlike the stock market when prices crash in the original art market, they only impact upon lesser artists and non-key pieces of art. In the stock market the Blue Chip stocks might dip slightly in price, but will recover rapidly. Standard stocks, or risky investments, will fall like a skydiver without a parachute. With art the so called ‘Blue Chip’ artists, Neal Adams, Jack Kirby, Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Mac Rayboy* and the like, just don’t dip that badly that it’s easy to leap in and make a killing. No-one in their right mind is going to take a lowball offer for a Jack Kirby Fantastic Four cover or a John Byrne X-Men cover no matter how bad the financial market is, and if such an offer was made it’d be snapped up rapidly. Instead the opportunists are going after lesser pieces and artists whose work isn’t considered to be ‘Blue Chip’. That’s how the stock market works, and it’s also how the original art market works.

I know quite a few art dealers who are telling me that they’re having a hard time selling art by certain artists. Commissions have dried up, and part of this would be down to the artists and the prices that they charge. I’m constantly amazed how an unpublished artist can ask for an amount for a commission that can be higher than that asked by an artist who has been in the industry and has worked on high profile books. By the same token, a lot of artists place a price on the most basic of art – sketching – which is clearly designed to reduce the amount of work that they have to do. It’s been theorized that Neal Adams only charges several hundred dollars for a convention head sketch because he simply doesn’t want to be bothered doing them, and if he does get a taker, well it’s worth his while. Other artists will undervalue their sketching or art as a whole, or offer free convention sketches with a view that the person obtaining the sketch might be tempted to purchase something far more substantial. It all comes down to the financial situation of the artist.

As it does with the buyer. In this growing climate more and more people are finding themselves in financial stress, which does lead to panic selling for some people. Like Chicken Little the sky isn’t falling and the world isn’t ending. The main issue is, as previously stated; the panic selling sees art that just isn’t as desirable for the most part. You don’t see high end collectors begin to panic sell the high end items, but if they did, the general public wouldn’t know about, nor would they see it.

So why is art cheap? How was it that I managed to get three pieces of art for a fraction of what they should have sold for? There’s no easy answer. Perhaps I was the only one looking at them. That’s doubtful as there were more than one bid. Perhaps I was the only one cashed up enough to purchase them. That answer is more than likely closer to the mark. I strongly suspect that the people who have the money are waiting for that one magic piece of art to appear on the open market, or just didn’t find any of these pieces as desirable as other items that have surfaced in recent times. Perhaps a lot of collectors are becoming more select in what they’re willing to buy and are holding out for that one piece of art that’ll come along, the Ditko Spider-Man image or the Neal Adams Detective Comics cover that they can pick up for a fraction of it’s true worth with a view of maximizing their investments. At the end of the day the only people who know why they didn’t bid, or didn’t bid higher than I did, are those who were aware of the auctions and either placed a low bid or didn’t bid at all.

And they’re not speaking right now.

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*the latter three were also not represented in the recently released ‘Grailpages’.

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