Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on August 8, 1998 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.



 

PAINTING BY NUMBERS

By Roger Dunbier, PhD

 

It is folk wisdom that people interested in art are by that reason not interested in numbers.  I don't believe it, and the very fact that I am spending time writing what follows shows that I don't believe that you believe it.

So here we go!

Some few years after the death of my father, Augustus Dunbier, his wife and my mother spent several enjoyable hours together reminiscing about the cast of characters (read students) who attended his many art classes over a period of almost sixty years.  Some were short term -- maybe one series of classes; others were very long term.  One formidable lady who I got to know very well started with him in 1922 and continued uninterrupted until 1974. When asked about this, Augustus replied with a not quite straight face: "I never graduate anyone!"

I came to the conclusion that it would be interesting to see how many of these people my mother could recall off the top of her head.  In several hours over a two or three-day period, she came up with 300.

By checking her records, she found 100 more and there were certainly some others unrecorded.  So all in all, conservatively, my father taught an estimated 500 different students, all in very small classes over a period of sixty years.

Now the number fun begins.

Augustus was not the only one giving private painting tuition during that period in Omaha.  He may have represented at best 50 percent.  Taking that figure (500 x 2) there were an estimated 1,000 art students in that category during the period of his instruction.

Omaha during that time accounted for, let us say, 50 percent of privately taught painting instruction obtained in the state of Nebraska.  We multiply our estimated 1,000 by 2, getting 2,000.

And let us say that the 60 years he taught comprised roughly 50 percent of the time period wherein any private instruction in painting was and has been available in Nebraska (1854-1998).  We can multiply our two thousand by two, obtaining 4,000.

It can be assumed that some considerable number of optimistic young people have embarked on a hope-to-be artistic career in universities both public and private, both of which are represented in Nebraska.  I fully understand that there is no way to obtain the numbers, so let us just go with our doubling number, and we arrive at the 8,000.

The state of Nebraska accounts for just under 1/200ths of the population of the country, so without trepidation, multiply the 8,000 by 200, obtaining for the United States the considerable number of serious "would be's" at 1,600,000.

Finally there are those legions of self-proclaimed, "self taught" who, of course, would not be included in the numbers above.  This is a particularly difficult category because many of these self-taught artists are at the same time self-taught liars, conveniently overlooking tuition under competitive practitioners.  

One must also make room for those who studied under Gilbert Stuart and others on the scene long before anyone every heard of Nebraska.  For these and every other excellent reason, I proclaim that from the beginning of the Republic to this day, there have been 2,000,000 people seriously wanting to be considered painters in the same sense that Rembrandt and Goya were so understood.

Some of you I know will take exception to my methodology of extrapolating upon an elderly lady's memory to arrive at a continental number.  But I want you "Doubting Thomases" to understand that I have had some considerable background in statistics and am well aware of the inadvisability of multiplying ordinal by cardinal numbers as well as other things statistical. But I have looked at the number 2,000,000 and as it has been said, "it is good."  Or less Biblically, "as good as any other."

Some of you may wonder where am I going with this?  It all relates to the ENCompass 10K for which we are celebrating its fifth birthday.  Five years ago, we published our first list of 10,000 of the most collectible American painters and illustrators.  In the intervening period, we have added to, subtracted from, and re-compiled the 10,000 list ten times, that is, every six months. The 10,000 now contained on the list represent artists from the Seventeenth Century to the present.  In fact, 70 percent of the list are no longer among the living.  It is my contention that to be on the list, even number 9,999, is a signal accomplishment.

It means that that individual is 1 of 2,000,000 would-ofs, could-ofs, or might-have-beens. That is, 2,000,000 persons in one way or another were at the starting line, and 10,000 completed the course, making the list. This is not to say that among the multitudes of un-listed, there are not some very good painters.  In fact, every six months, our computer moves an average of 200 new names onto the list.  They are good painters, and their increasing relative price and literature strength causes them to be selected from the unlisted.

The question arises"  What is there practical in those ranking numbers?  Well I will give you an answer. Our analysis shows that from numbers 3,000 to the bottom of the 10,000 list, paintings by these artists living and deceased can be had in the $1,000. to $3,000. range. These are not always the best or the largest works by these individuals, but they are quite collectible. They are at any given moment available by the thousands at any number of venues.  Repeating, they can be obtained for prices under $3,000. 

There are being offered at the same time works by the unlisted painters works at $10,000, $20,000., or more thousands of dollars, also at any number of venues.

Draw your own conclusions.


"At the risk of repeating myself, let me remind you that the value or real price of a painting is almost entirely in its informational content."


If something about this analysis goes against the treasured, whiskered "willing buyerÐwilling seller"  bromide lodged in so many minds, I apologize.  But let me point out that all too often the willing seller knows everything about the painting, and the willing buyer knows nothing beyond what he or she sees.  This kind of thinking doesn't work in a pastry shop let alone a used car dealership.  Yet some people think that is adequate in an art gallery.

At the risk of repeating myself, let me remind you that the value or real price of a painting is almost entirely in its informational content.  Putting it another way, you are only slightly off the mark if you said "It is all information." Even the strictly "beauty" aspect is included in the way artists use the term "information."  More widely reputation of the painter accounts for well over 90% of the 1,000-fold price differential between artists ranked number 1 by the computer and the artist ranked 9,999. And the admittedly limited information about number 9,999 makes a painting by that artist 1,000 times more valuable than one by your Aunt Mabel, about whom we've never heard.  These multiples are the result of information, in other words reputation.

This reputation is subject to measurements.  We measure it all the time and put numbers to it. When you buy a painting, you should know these numbers. And for the approximately 2,000,000 painters who don't possess a number, you should know that as well.

Ignorance is no excuse.  Ask your lawyer or tax accountant about ignorance of the law.  You will get a single answer.  Ask an art dealer about the same thing.  You will get several answers.  Work with the one who agrees with the above professionals.

© 1998 Roger Dunbier

 


 

About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008
 

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