Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on October 15, 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mustangs and the Macabre
By Roger Dunbier, PhD
Nick Eggenhofer and Charles Addams worked in the same city at the same time and had the same kind of employers--nationally circulated magazine publishers. They illustrated these magazines with marvelous drawings done in the main without color.
It was subject matter which, however, propelled them in vastly different directions. Readers then and collectors today wanted western horses and horsemen from Eggenhofer and macabre humor from Addams. Any work by either of these two lacking those features were more or less ignored then and deeply discounted by collectors today.
Your correspondent selected these artists for this exercise to illustrate that their reliance on narrow subject matter was met and continues to meet with obvious success. It is the less obvious and the overwhelming majority of other artists which will concern us here and should concern all collectors of American painting.
The pricing of painting is more information and less aesthetics than the average neophyte collector believes. A good part of this information concerns the considerable price differentials between diverse subjects portrayed in the works of the same artist where money can be saved or made.
Success: Any artist who has had some has found it in various and dissimilar directions. Whether accidentally or otherwise, this direction becomes self-fulfilling in differing degrees at the time of creation and is often amplified over the very long time in which the art is preserved.
Artists work to their strengths, which is, in turn, appreciated in the marketplace. This appreciation may continue to persist as is the case of the Eggenhofer and Addams examples. Or interest may explode. Often it just gradually diminishes. In any and all circumstance, every painter or illustrator, living or deceased has completed some work with subject matter which is much more valuable than other efforts by the same hand. With artists as specialized and/or as well known as these two, there may be little problem. For the great majority, however, the pitfalls for the collector are all too common and dangerous as to what price one should pay for what subject matter it is all too much an insider's game.
What somebody else knows that you don't has the potential to cost you money. This generalization has particular applicability in the business of art. The following story is told of Edwin Crocker of the California railroad family traveling around Europe in the 1870s. His wholesale purchases of paintings good, dubious, and fake would exhaust the back rooms of dealers who would advise Crocker to go on to Dresden or some other art capital and then wire ahead to the dealers there to be ready with higher prices for Crocker's arrival. It is safe to say that those dealers knew more about both Crocker and painting than he knew about them.
It is within this category of subject matter that problems are at their most insidious. Condition, attribution, size and medium, etc., factors which directly affect price, can be readily ascertained and if not, can and often are guaranteed by selling parties. With subject matter, you are on your own. If you should, after purchase find out that a painting by E.I. Couse picturing a flock of sheep is worth much less than a Taos Indian, it's your funeral--not the sellers--who will be pleased to inform that it is your problem, not his or hers, when you can't tell a woolly sheep from a half-naked man.
The following list of well known painters outlines marketplace differentials for two categories of subject matter that each of the individuals portrayed with some considerable frequency in their careers.
|Frederic Remington||Western Genre||Eastern Waters|
|John J Audubon||Birds||Bankers|
|Alfred Jacob Miller||Buffalo Hunts||Fox Hunts|
|Edward Hopper||Urban Windows||Sand Dunes|
|Thomas Hart Benton||Farm Hands||Abstractions|
The headings "Pricey" and "Discounted" are used advisedly because some very good paintings can be found in the discounted column and the occasional failure in the pricey list. The importance is that the marketplace values the subject to a great degree independently and the buyer should be aware. Looked at from a different angle two paintings comparable in every other way but portraying subjects in one or the other column should reflect very disparate marketplace values.
Now once again "marketplace" is used advisedly because a case can be made for the "contrarian" individual to make hay in the discounted column but that buyer better know what he or she is doing. Taking advantage of other collector's exuberance as they are carried by the winds of fashion creates opportunities for the independent-minded buyer with a good eye to go against the crowd. Either way subject matter adds up to money well spent or intelligently saved.
What takes place above at the pinnacle of price takes place below where there are more paintings and more collectors. Here opportunities for taking advantage of these subject matter disparities are even greater. This is because in this second echelon the buyers and the sellers know even less about this category of distinctions. Or stated with "the bark off," there is a greater chance that you are dealing with someone who is ignorant of the particular pluses or minuses.
The following artists are highly collectible. Each has at least a ten-thousand dollar differential in a medium size painting between the desired subject matter and the undesired when all other factors are exactly the same.
Davis, Charles H
Fortune, E Charton
These painters, all deceased, really knew how to paint and their work has stood the test of time. They have been mentioned repeatedly in the art literature. Their paintings are in the museums. They are in my estimation all underpriced. And in every case, there lurks this subject matter disparity in marketplace appreciation.
A quick computer analysis of the twenty painters points to an average $15,000 disparity between the most desired subject matter and the least when every other factor is held constant. As an example, a hypothetical oil, 24 x 30, which averages overall $18,000 finds the favored subjects at $25,000 while the disesteemed will fetch only $10,000. The savvy collector should be aware of these price determining factors. Finally it should be emphasized that these disparities prevail for artists whose name-values are one half or even one quarter of the above. To be safe, one should always consider the value placed on subject matter and the bankable importance of knowing more about it than your trading partner.
© 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.
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