Art Market

Determining the Best Time to Sell Art from Your Collection

Shannon Lee
May 4, 2020 3:46PM

Andy Warhol, Silver Liz, 1963, went to auction as part of Christie’s Post War and Contemporary Art Evening sale in 2015. Photo by Katie Collins/PA Images via Getty Images.

Like most things in life, when it comes to consigning a work from your collection for sale, timing is everything. Not being able to read the market correctly could mean your prized artwork doesn’t sell for as much as it’s worth, or worse—it doesn’t sell at all. This is bad news for both the art and your wallet: An artwork that fails to sell at auction is often considered “burnt,” significantly devaluing its market worth for years to come.

A failed 2016 consignment of an iconic Andy Warhol silkscreen to Christie’s is an infamous case in point. Under ordinary circumstances, the work would have been an easy sell. Not only was it an original Warhol, but it was one of his well-known portraits of Elizabeth Taylor. Other works in the series had huge recent success in the market: Warhol’s Liz #3 [Early Colored Liz] (1963) sold for $31.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2014, while a 2015 auction at Christie’s saw Silver Liz (diptych) (1963–65) fetch $28 million. Estimated to sell for a figure between $10 million and $15 million, the 1964 Liz consigned to Christie’s by the Warhol Foundation in 2016 was, by comparison, a steal.

There was just one problem. Two years earlier, that same 1964 Liz was the subject of a controversial lawsuit between the Warhol Foundation and the work’s previous owner, Warhol’s former bodyguard, Agusto Bugarin. Based on the lack of enthusiastic buyers, it seems two years was not enough time to settle the dust of the controversy—a classic case of selling too soon. Figuring out the right (or wrong) time to consign a work of art is far from an exact science, but there are ways to minimize the guesswork.

Study up

As with any market, one must become intimately familiar with the goods they are selling. This means having a thorough understanding of your work’s history and developing a sensitivity for current trends. Getting a feel for the best time to sell, say, a Jordan Casteel painting comes down to having your finger on the pulse of both the art world and the broader culture. “There’s always a market, but it could be stronger for certain artists or movements at any given moment,” explained Jean-Paul Engelen, the deputy chairman and global co-head of the 20th-century and contemporary department at Phillips. “Right now, the market is great for young African American artists.”

Detailing how these trends are determined, art adviser Lisa Schiff added that they’re mostly driven by “collective consciousness” and current events. You just have to be aware of the art-historical momentum. One should also be acutely aware of the artist’s career and market history. According to Engelen, prospective consignors would do well to make note of where an artist has sold in the past, how many shows they’ve had, which curators support them, and how they relate to their artistic peers and community. “If you don’t know these things, you’re going in blind,” he warned. “While auctions are one of the only places where you can see data points, they won’t tell you everything.” Getting a sense of how much an artist’s work sells for at art fairs and in gallery shows provides crucial primary market context for understanding demand and performance on the secondary market.

Another good market signal is an upcoming survey or a major institutional solo show. “A year buildup to a major retrospective for a blue-chip, deceased, or older artist would be a good time to sell at auction,” said Schiff. “Right now, for example, there are a ton of requests for Barbara Kruger tied to her multiple museum retrospectives coming up.” (It remains to be seen how the suspension of programming at museums in most of the world due to the COVID-19 crisis will impact collector demand for artists with suspended exhibitions.)

Avoid the flood

That said, it’s very important to make sure that the market isn’t flooded. Following the age-old law of supply and demand, if there are many works by your artist currently being offered, now might not be the best time to consign. Unless, of course, you have an exceptional work by the artist.

“It really depends on what you’re selling and how much of an artist’s work the auction house already has,” said Schiff. Citing the Kruger example, Schiff explained that “unless the client had an early 1980s or ’90s work that was unique,” she would be cautious about selling. “You can smell the ground a bit,” she added. Luckily, since it’s in the market’s best interest to make sure a work sells, galleries and auction houses will do the requisite research and help regulate the supply of any given artist. “There’s always a shared interest—and that’s to make that artwork succeed,” explained Engelen. “People might not realize that we say no to certain properties in order to be certain that there is a market beyond the auction we are having. It’s not like the stock market where, if you wanted to sell all of your shares today, you can. If we feel that there are too many works by an artist on the market, we will decline a sale.”

Play the long game

Macroeconomic factors can also have an effect on sales climates, though the correlation is far from direct. “Your art collection isn’t like a 401(k)—you’re not valuating it every couple of months,” said Schiff. Still, as COVID-19 continues to paralyze the global economy, many are speculating about its effects on the art market.

A recession doesn’t necessarily signal that it’s a bad time to consign art, however. According to some experts, when the economy slows, art may continue to see steady market demand. “It’s very psychologically complicated,” said Engelen. Having worked in the industry for the past 30 years, he’s experienced everything from the dot-com bust to the 2008 financial crash. “It’s hard to generalize, but we’ve all seen that if the global economics are bad, generally the offerings are just smaller. It’s not that there’s no market—there’s just no sellers. There’s always buyers, specifically for the top pieces.”

Still, it’s hard to change people’s moods. “When people run, most everybody runs—even when they have no reason to be nervous,” Schiff said. “There are very few people who have the stamina to be moving forward in this kind of down market, but this is really when you should be moving forward. Confidence can really drive product.”

Leon Benrimon, a director of modern and contemporary art at Heritage Auctions, echoed Schiff’s sentiment. “Most people we’re talking to are holding onto their works,” he said. “To my mind, that doesn’t make sense because the art market is still strong now.”

Anticipating the long-term financial strain that this pandemic could create, Benrimon predicted that as things get more dire, there could be a massive rush to sell. “The market will dry up between now and the fall and then there will be a flood of works on the market as people are forced to sell,” he said. “It’d make more sense for people to buy and sell on a more even keel.”

Of course, the surest safeguard against market conditions, be they good or bad, is having truly exceptional work. “Great material fetches great prices in any kind of market,” said Engelen. “For exceptional pieces, it doesn’t matter. Art uplifts people and these collectors are there for the long run—this is part of their lives.”

To learn more about consignments, visit Artsy Editorial’s Art Consignments 101 page, and to learn about consigning art with Artsy, click here.

Shannon Lee