The world of fine-art photography has its own vocabulary, and its own methods for assessing value and price. To better understand the workings of the fine-art market and how it’s changing, PDN has interviewed numerous gallery directors, private dealers and collectors, and also talked to photographers who have succeeded at selling their prints themselves. Their advice, gleaned from articles in PDN’s archives, provides a guide for photographers trying to navigate the market for fine-art prints.
These archive articles are available to PDN subscribers.
A Guide to Pricing Your Prints
Gallery owners agree: You can always raise prices, but you can never lower them. In addition to pricing their work too high before they’re established, emerging artists make the mistake of issuing editions that are too large. Keeping editions small—ideally six prints or fewer, she says—is increasingly important, as more contemporary art collectors used to investing in one-of-a-kind paintings begin collecting photographs. “I beg artists to issue one edition of three to five,” says New York gallery owner Andrea Meisin.
Raising your prices depends on many factors, gallerists say, including not only how well your prints have sold, but who has bought them.
What Does “Limited Edition” Really Mean?
Twenty years ago, an edition of less than 20 prints was rare; now galleries rarely sell work by a photographer who prints in editions of more than ten. Collectors expect that the photographic prints they acquire remain scarce so they hold their value. But many photographers have issued new editions at a later date in larger sizes, or using different print processes, or both: Sometimes it’s for creative reasons, but often it is to cash in on the rising value of a work for which the existing limited-edition prints have sold out. New York, California and other states have statutes defining a “limited edition” and restricting what a photographer can do to capitalize on a single image. Philadelphia-based photography dealer Alex Novak, for one, minces no words. “Whether it’s illegal or not, it’s unethical” to issue new editions that previous buyers had no warning might be created, he says. “It hurts the people you’ve sold to previously.” And photographers hurt themselves by diluting the market value of their work and their name.
Managing Your Inventory of Limited-Edition Prints
By limiting editions, artists also limit the inventory they can sell. When the last print in an edition sells, “You can’t just print one for posterity,” says private dealer Lee Marks of Lee Marks Fine Art. Whether to sell or to save for the future—when you may need equity, or give it to an institution or heir—is a highly personal decision each photographer PDN interviewed considered differently, depending on their career, their prospects and their view of their legacy.
Managing your inventory also depends on accurate record-keeping. That’s particularly important for dealers who use stepped pricing: In an edition of ten, for example, prints 1 through 3 sell for the lowest price and numbers 4 through 6 cost more, up through the last print. Keeping accurate records about how many prints they’ve sold, given away, or lent for an exhibition is essential for every photographer to prevent pricing mistakes—such as selling the fourth print at the third print’s price. “If someone calls and says, ‘I like this image. Where is it in the edition?’ we know,” says Michael Foley of Foley Gallery.
What to Expect from the Photographer/Gallery Relationship
Who pays for production, promotion, shipping? What exactly does “exclusivity” or “consignment” mean? “A written document is essential,” insists noted photography consultant Mary Virginia Swanson, author of “Finding Your Audience: A Guide to Marketing Your Photographs.” “Many galleries don’t use one, so artists need to sit down with a dealer if they don’t provide a contract to discuss what the expectations are.”
Dealers, photographers and gallery owners discuss some of the terms to be negotiated– and explain where misunderstandings commonly occur.
What Collectors Want
PDN interviewed five veteran photo collectors to tell us about the print they bought most recently, and where they look for new work. We also asked them how much they are influenced by edition size, print size, price, or the reputation of the artist or the artist’s gallery. Their opinions on these criteria were as individual as the collectors themselves.
How To Sell Your Work Direct to Collectors
Photographers who choose to sell prints on their own—without the help of gallery representation—can face some wariness from collectors. However, by prudently promoting their work to select collectors and institutions, building a network of supporters and being professional about their pricing and record-keeping, several artists PDN interviewed said they have been successful at marketing their prints privately. It occupies a lot of time, however, and balancing selling one’s work with creating new work can be very difficult. “There are times when I get completely frustrated that I haven’t made anything and I just get fed up with it,” says Lauren Henkin.
The Growing Market for Fine-Art Videos
Technological developments are helping collectors get comfortable with the idea of purchasing video-based art. Buying video works no longer means committing to the installation of a bulky television or finding the space for a projector; video art and multimedia can now be displayed seamlessly on slim monitors hung cleanly on a wall. The photographers-turned-video artists PDN interviewed explain that collectors of video work now include individuals, as well as large institutions.
Representing video artists like Gregory Scott has “completely expanded our market,” says Catherine Edelman who owns a gallery known for selling photography. These collectors are primarily collectors of contemporary art. “There is something about video that is so accessible today,” adds Edelman. “We’re all looking for that person who gets our heart going, and is the one avenue that I’m definitely seeking.”