Often in doing research on a work of art for a client I rely on past auction records as a gauge of the market and its trends over time for a particular artist. This type of analysis allows me to advise collectors on what something should cost or what it might be worth in the marketplace. There are a variety of art price databases available on-line, and they are excellent tools for market research purposes. These databases, such as artnet.com, artprice.com, and artfact.com (The Art Sales Index), are generally inexpensive subscription services available to the public, usually for a monthly fee.
How do they work? Say, for example, you need to know what a Degas bronze sculpture sells for at auction. Perhaps you are interested in buying one, and you want to know how much they generally cost. You would enter the relevant ramifications into the database (artist, title of a specific work if you know it, medium/material, year, price range, etc.) and the database will gather all related results and sort them according to your preferences (prices high-low, low-high, etc.). You will be able to see all such results meeting your criteria for similar works by Degas sold at auction. You can then export the data or print it for future use.
How does this information help you? The price history of a certain artist or work of art will give you a general sense of how high or low the prices go for that artist and what you might expect to pay at auction for such a work. They can also show you trends in the market. For example, the auction results might indicate that a certain artist’s work got very valuable in the 1990s when there were some very high prices paid at auction while before that it seemed to sell for consistently low prices. This type of information might arm you with buying power or with market knowledge that will be key in negotiating the price for a work of art that you wish to purchase. It might also keep you from making a costly mistake by significantly overpaying for a common or low valued work of art about which you might otherwise have known nothing.
That said, there are two very important things to keep in mind in gathering data from art auction databases. First, these auction results tell only part of the picture. These are only auction results, or publicly available data from public sales, and do not account for prices of works sold through private dealers, galleries or between private parties all of which may be higher or lower than the auction prices you have found.
A second important thing to remember, as well, is that it is how you use the search results that matters. Good analysis is key and unless you know how to do that analysis the data will be useless to you. Just as when you purchase a piece of real estate, it is important to identify relevant market comparables that meet the same criteria. In real estate, for example, you might find that houses in a certain neighborhood of similar age with the same numbers of bedrooms and bathrooms are good comparables. With art, you want to look at equally comparable pieces. You want to look at works of roughly the same size (comparing the sales price of a huge painting to a very small one is not very helpful), the same age, the same style or series, the date of the auction (was it an inflated market or a down market when this sales result was earned?) and so on, in order to find good comparables. Not only are the sale prices important to look at but you should also consider the auction estimates are often, though not always, a very good indicator of market trends and price ranges.
The more you use the databases the easier it becomes to spot trends and to find good comparables. They are another useful tool in the marketplace and one which is available to all.