By Yvonne Bynoe
In the last few years, there's been a "Gold Rush" feeling surrounding works by Black artists. As the work of superstar artists sells for hundreds of thousands, and even millions of dollars, at auctions, the art world machinery, which includes galleries, art advisors, and publications are hurrying to anoint the next Black celebrity artists.
In far too many instances, the galleries and the art advisors dealing in African-American or African art aren't experts. They merely jumped on the bandwagon and are selling whatever they can to whomever they can. So don't immediately believe the hype that the artist they're promoting is the next Amoako Boafo or Jordan Casteel. Conducting your own due diligence is a must. It behooves you to seek out gallerists and art advisors who have a track record and demonstrated expertise in African-American art or African art. They'll have a historical perspective both on Black art and the overall art market. Therefore, they can give you objective advice about a potential purchase.
Similar to the music industry, when an artist has a hit, the impetus is for the other record companies to sign new artists to copy the winning formula; the art world is no different. Consequently, there is a surfeit of derivative works. These works are almost indistinguishable from one another in style and subject matter. Moreover, they're coming from both self-taught artists and formally trained artists in the U.S. and from African countries. The question this creates for collectors of Black art, particularly emerging ones, is:
What should I buy?
Prior generations of middle-class, African-American collectors essentially bought what they loved because they had no expectation that the works by artists of African descent would increase in value. They often bought works by then-emerging artists such as Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, or Benny Andrews for modest fees and often on payment plans. Decades later, they were pleasantly surprised when their collections were worth millions.
In contrast, today's Black art collectors aspire to buy a work for $5,000-$10,000 that they like and that they can sell in 3-10 years for several million dollars. However, the odds of spending $5,000 on a work and it being worth even $100,000 in 10 years is slim. The art industry tends to over-emphasize the huge sales and downplay the much lower sale prices of Black artists and artists in general.
A work has no true market value until someone tries to sell it.
The commercial worth hinges on what someone is willing to pay for the painting that you purchased 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The secondary market includes works sold privately through art dealers and those acquired through public auctions. Since auction sale prices are recorded, although they're an imperfect metric, they have nevertheless become the accepted means for analyzing the sales histories of many artists.
Factors beyond the skill of the artist—such as the death of the artist, the artist receiving a prestigious award, the artist's work being acquired by a major museum, political or societal events, and changing artistic tastes—heavily dictate whether an artist's sales prices trend up or down.
Unfortunately, if you wait to buy a work from a well-known artist at an auction, you'll be competing against collectors often with very deep pockets. Thus, you'll be quickly outbid.
Here are some suggestions on how to be more savvy about buying art from artists of African descent.
GET IN EARLY
When you start seeing an artist's name being bantered around in the mainstream media, the prices have already gone up. Serious collectors are checking out promising MFA students and buying their works. They're also regularly visiting galleries in their cities and regions, as well as others across the country. By establishing relationships with galleries, collectors frequently get a heads up on promising emerging artists they believe that the collector should consider acquiring.
Risk-averse collectors tend to miss out on the works that catapult in value because they're looking for assurances that the painting is worth the price. I have talked to several Black American collectors who passed on artists who, early in their careers, were selling works for $10K or $15K. Each collector wanted to kick themselves when, only a few years later, the artist, now a big name, was commanding high five and six figures for a painting.
There is no empirical formula to determine if a new artist is a good financial investment. The best indicator is whether or not you think that the source(s) recommending the work is reputable and knows what they're talking about.
This point cannot be stressed enough.
Galleries, even the best ones, are in the business of selling art, so you will have to make the final decision. Moreover, as I stated earlier, too many gallerists have only a serviceable knowledge of African-American or African art, so you can't take what they say as the gospel. This means that for you to be able to separate the truly groundbreaking work from the copycat pieces, you need to have looked at a great deal of art in books, publications, on social media, and in person. Many seasoned collectors advise educating yourself for at least six months before acquiring your first work.
Most importantly, if you're going to have a painting in your home or office, the style of the work or its subject matter should resonate with you on a personal level. Given all of the available choices, it takes most collectors time to really determine the type of art that they really love.
Art advisors can accelerate your learning curve, but hiring one doesn't negate the need for you to do the ground-level work. You should know enough to be able to vet the art advisor and ask him or her basic questions about the art that interests you. If you don't do your homework, you won't have a clue whether the advisor's recommendations are objective (and meet your goals) or are biased because of their relationships with particular galleries.
ESTABLISH RELATIONSHIPS WITH EMERGING ARTISTS
Generally, artists are more likely to sell their work, particularly when they're first starting out, to people they know and like. Buying directly from the artist is a way to financially support the artist and invest in their work before the public catches wind of them. An important factor in the inherent value of art is its scarcity; there is only one original work and perhaps a limited number of authorized reproductions.
The older Black collectors frequently hosted events in their homes where they introduced artists' work to their friends and colleagues. It is in these informal gatherings that long-term relationships between Black artists and Black collectors were established. Even after an artist is represented by a gallery, they still have the ability to give input on which collector is offered their work.
Creating your own word-of-mouth campaign about artists in your city also increases the perceived value of an artist's work. This entails attending the artists' gallery openings or museum exhibits with a group of friends, scheduling studio visits, and/or pushing that your favorite Black artists are covered in your local newspaper or the lifestyle/art magazine or blog.
The Black artists who rise to prominence and whose work is seen as historically "important" usually have had people behind them—patrons who are not only buying their works but are also promoting them within their local arts communities (art writers, museums/cultural institutions, and universities).
DON'T SPEND MORE THAN YOU CAN AFFORD TO LOSE
If you're buying a painting based on its potential future value, you're making a bet that you're likely to lose. Investments of all types are volatile and art is no different. Most novice collectors don't have the money, access, or the acumen to consistently buy works that will appreciate. Furthermore, even blue chip art can decline in value.
According to the Art Newspaper, in December 2021 "Sotheby’s and Christie’s first live auctions of Old Master pictures in London grossed a combined £29.3m (with fees), 19.5% down on the total achieved at the equivalent pre-pandemic sales in 2019 (£36.4m with fees)." The works were deemed less fashionable than popular contemporary art, and the pandemic was also cited as a contributing factor to the lower sales prices.
It may sound trite, but if you're purchasing a work of art for its aesthetic value then there is never a loss. In the process of enjoying it, you may also end up with a highly valuable asset. If, however, you're buying it primarily as a financial investment, then curb your expectations and understand that works you buy aren't likely to outperform the market.
is the founder of the online platform @shelovesblackart which highlights visual art from the African diaspora with the mission to encourage more people of African descent to collect art. She is a former attorney, cultural critic and author of several books.
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