Valuable and Iconic Art

Published 16 August 2022 in Gallery Conversations

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The question that floats around conversations amongst artists and art buyers, sellers, and enthusiasts: what is art worth?

How valuable is art? What determines the value of an artwork?

To clarify, there is a noticeable difference between the value of commercial art, and contemporary and historical or antique works – we will focus on contemporary and significant historical or antique artworks. To start, the key factor that makes up an artwork is its medium and condition; therefore, the condition, medium, and quality of materials, and technique used with those materials immediately prescribe a value to that work. After that comes the authenticity of the artwork, that it is, it is originality; and to secure this originality over time, a certificate of authenticity is often sold and kept with the artwork – sometimes only if, however, it is valuable enough to deem that certificate necessary. Nevertheless, artworks done in editions…each edition is considered an original in and of itself as it is an original print.

Moving on: the artist is an obvious determining factor. A Diane Victor print is worth more than an art student’s because Diane has built up her reputation over years of excellent quality, shocking or intense content, awe-inspiring technique, and a variety of skills used throughout her processes. And in relation to the artist, recognition further influences which of their works are more than others: a Picasso Cubist painting such as his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,’ 1907 is worth more than one of his street scenes such as ‘Young Acrobat on a Ball’, 1905 because Picasso is most recognised as a Cubist artist. Nevertheless, Picasso’s ‘Young Acrobat on a Ball,’ 1905 is still worth millions, because it is a Picasso.

The last of the factors to do with the actual artwork concerns its backstory and historical significance; the backstory of both the artwork and/or the artist. Artists with tragic, exciting, adventurous, or novel lives help value their artworks – remnants of their remarkable or tragic lives. And following that is the work’s historical significance: was it created as commentary on a major historical event? Did it cause ripples in the art community – causing a shift in the approach to art? Did it bring attention to a specific issue? Such significance can be seen in Kevin Carter’s photograph, Struggling Girl’, 1993 – the value of which is heavily influenced by its shock-factor, its representation of a struggling people, as well as the story of its creator’s life and death (for more information on this, watch Farai Chideya’s documentary on Carter, The Death of Kevin Carter).

Lastly, the artwork’s provenance (origin), ownership history, and viewer effect, factor into the work’s value. The context of creation (with historical significance) affects the value, followed by its series of ownership. If owned by prominent families or institutions, their reputations of quality carry over into the value of the work. This is followed by the work’s effect on viewers – does it shock, awe, anger, confuse, excite, or is it funny. Often, as seen with Kevin Carter, emotionally charged works, or works with deep messages and stories to them elicit greater value.

Now then, what is seen, analysed, and pondered, is the subject or content of the works – and many also mistake a work’s subject as a means for or factor in determining value. However, as discussed above, the subject does not play a big enough role in determining value, unless it is specific, commissioned, or unique. And this is where many get confused: just because a drawing or painting is of an icon does not automatically make it worth more. Andy Warhol’s silkscreen ‘Marilyn’s are valuable due to the popularity of Warhol, his pioneering of the silkscreen technique and pop art style. If anyone now were to do a Marilyn Monroe portrait, it would not reach as high a value as Marilyn did not commission it herself and it is not a novel idea – the subject of ‘Marilyn Monroe’ is not highly valuable.

Another example is that of Nelson ‘Madiba’ Mandela – an iconic subject for portraiture. One of the most valuable portraits of Madiba was a photograph taken by Adrian Steirn, Mandela’s last portrait before his death 9 years ago. The value, once again, is granted due to the photograph’s historical significance and context in its creation. However, nowadays, some of those painting or drawing Mandela are creating works of amazing skill, nevertheless, these works cannot achieve the worth of his portraits commissioned by the icon himself during times of importance. Moreover, Steirn acknowledges Mandela’s status as an icon as this portrait was part of a series, ’21 Icons’ – and again, the portraits taken to create this series are originals of living legends or people shaping South Africa and the world around them for the better.

So, what determines an artwork’s value is its quality of medium, condition, artist, and historical significance – with the market and demand playing a role in the specifics. (So yes, upcoming artists need to work the market and persevere within the art world to build their name and ‘brand’). The iconography (content/subject) of a work does play a significant role in creating or determining value and worth, rather, it is the story of the work, and the artist, which lends itself towards a valuable existence.

- Cassandra Comins