Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on August 28, 1997 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.


Fine Art Comparables - Part Two

By Roger Dunbier, PhD


"Comparable" has two basic meanings. The first is that they are equivalent--equal. The second is that two or more can be compared, that they have enough of the same that valid comparisons including what is different can be enumerated and weighed.

In the art world as far as finished product is concerned, you can almost dismiss the first definition, equal, unless you are of course talking of prints, castings or other multiples. Tens of thousands of Bev Doolittle eye-twisters are comparable exactly in the same way as every "People Magazine" is comparable to every other as they pour off the presses in the thousands.

The applicable meaning is the second definition where there are enough things the same so that the elements that differ are worth the comparison. An obvious comparison could be made between Statue of Liberty and the heads on Mount Rushmore but to what end? One must do better than that.

A short exercise here might be appropriate. Taking several elements with some degree of randomness, we select 1) the state of Pennsylvania 2) landscape painting 3) snow scenes 4) impressionist technique and 5) the early years of this century 6) well known art colony.

Using the ENCompass program, we can obtain the following number of painters through sequential filters.


Total Impressionists U. S. 1767

Impressionists 1900-1940 1420

The Above From Pennsylvania 115

Landscape Painters 111

Well Known Snow Scene Specialty 36

New Hope "School" connection 17


Some degree of comparability could be drawn among the artists at any of the levels shown above. Depending upon one's purpose, less (or even more) sorting might be advisable.

Beginning with the first sort, it should be understood that no computer on its own can tell you what separates Impressionist from Photo Real or any other technique. A computer can and is able however to obtain by tabulation of these Impressionist works and artists through an analysis of those mentioned in 229 books in our database key worded as Impressionist. In fact, 59 of these books have the word Impressionist or Impressionism in the titles. Using these books as the source of stylistic information, we obtain our starting point of 1767 Impressionists.

From that beginning, additional factors are inserted as filters to achieve within the original 1767 Impressionists the desired level of comparability.


Era 1420

Location 115

Subject Matter 111

More Subject Matter 36

More Location 17


With our extensive keywording ability, we could carry this filtering process further by isolating only women or those who, in addition to snow scenes, also painted portraits or painted in Paris or Venice, etc. But for this exercise, our level of comparability was achieved when we found our 17 New Hope School snow scene painters. This is information which could be used to complete collections or to establish a coherent nascent collection direction.

Everything described above can, in fact, be looked upon as only a beginning exercise in the use of the concept of comparables.

Comparing the superficially incomparable offers even more possibilities. The following list of fifteen painters should suffice in providing an example of dissimilarity of almost every kind to be found in American two-dimensional work. Birth dates range from 1756 to 1940. The styles and subject matter range from those dominant in Colonial days to pop and post modern.




Washington Allston 1779 - 1843 allegorical sea-landscape, history

Ernest Blumenschein 1874 - 1960 figure, landscape, Indian genre

Chuck Close 1940 photo-grid real portrait, figure

Thomas Wilmer Dewing 1851 - 1938 figure-idealized women, portrait

Walt Kuhn 1877 - 1949 figure, genre, still life, portrait

Samuel FB Morse 1791 - 1872 portrait, historical, landscape

Rembrandt Peale 1778 - 1860 portrait, historical genre, animal

John Frederick Peto 1854 - 1907 trompe still life

William Ranney 1813 - 1857 frontier-hunting genre, landscape

Man Ray 1890 - 1977 dada, surreal, cubist imagery

William Trost Richards 1833 - 1905 marine, landscape, botanics

Ed Ruscha 1937 pop-word modeling illusions

Everett Shinn 1876 - 1953 urban genre, illustrator, mural

John Trumbull 1756 - 1843 history, figure, portrait, landscape

Tom Wesselmann 1931 pop nude figure, mod real images


Where is the comparability?


It arises through our computer analysis of prices, literature and literature momentum as updated twice each year. We add the results of sixty-five well documented fine art auctions each year to the tens of thousands of lots already in the auction file. We also add six or seven-hundred art books, museum and exhibition catalogues to the thousands currently indexed. Our computer accumulates the totals, prices and dates and automatically assigns averages and rankings. It is this ranking concept which allows us to create the following listing of artists very disparate in every way except the close proximity of their rankings.





Washington Allston 125 83 190


Ernest Blumenschein 130 162 131


Chuck Close 106 192 75


Thomas Wilmer Dewing 141 121 114


Walt Kuhn 116 90 198


Samuel FB Morse 138 80 164


Rembrandt Peale 139 100 147


John Frederick Peto 119 136 109


William Tylee Ranney 105 186 130


Man Ray 127 140 169


William Trost Richards 160 129 73


Ed Ruscha 144 176 93


Everett Shinn 126 110 141


John Trumbull 110 75 175


Tom Wesselmann 128 148 125



The comparability here resides in the assessment of the marketplace based in some considerable measure upon the words of opinion makers in the museums, galleries and art publishing houses.




To understand why some artists are expensive and others are not, one must go to the output of fine art publishers. Artists pictured, featured and mentioned repeatedly are those that elicit competitive bidding at the auction houses. To fully understand prices, one must understand the basis of popularity which is in the main based upon literature of one kind or another.

In our Top 10,000 enumeration, the artists above listed are at this time fairly-well solidly ensconced in their respective rankings just below the top 100 and above the remaining 9800. Take note of the relatively close conformity of rankings in the first three categories which, when averaged produce the fourth "Overall" ranking. Everything points to a kind of across-the-board equivalency in reputation.

1) Prices of works 2) Numbers of Books and 3) Recency of Publication conform because the first is in the main dependent upon the interrelated second and third. 4) Overall Ranking, of course, completes the picture.

We assert that the price you pay at auction is only secondarily based upon overbidding the last remaining contestant bidder. It is primarily based upon the likelihood that some or indeed most of the auction active participants know something about the artist and are willing and able to put their money where their knowledge is. Underlying all is the probability of their obtaining information and this in turn rests on the above mentioned frequency and recency of publication, the best and most permanent is in book form.

It is our contention at ENCompass that this literature information is measurable, precedes in time and, for most artists, has more value in the assessment of price than individual or indeed collective auction prices taken alone.

The overwhelming majority of thousands of artists we tabulate show remarkable conformity between our Price and Literature strength rankings. There is absolutely no mystery here other than the fact that we alone proceed in these terms.

© 1997 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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