In the case of just about every collectible, there’s eventually some agreed-upon basis for valuing particular items. Sometimes, it’s a third-party company that takes on the role and produces a catalog of values (often these values are a bit arbitrary). There are catalogs of values for baseball cards, Pez dispensers, you name it.
In the art world, auctions have settled out as the basis of valuation. Because galleries do not release their retail sales prices, but auction houses do, these (essentially wholesale) prices are used as the basis for valuation these days.
A “listed” painter is simply a painter who has at least one record of a sale at auction.
People throw around the term “listed painter” as though it’s a mark of distinction, but it merely means at least one person has put one of the artist’s paintings at auction. Most of the paintings I sell are by listed artists. Plenty aren’t, however. The interesting thing to note is that I can’t really say that the paintings by listed painters are significantly better than the ones by unlisted painters.
This is because I buy with my eye, choosing paintings based purely on quality and affordability. Yes, I have to pay more if the painter is somewhat well-known and “well-listed,” but I’ll only pay extra for this up to a certain point. I’ll buy an accomplished landscape by an unlisted or lightly listed painter for $2,000 before I’ll buy a similar painting by a much better-known and highly listed painter for $40,000. This is because at the $40,000, the painting becomes an investment – with the hopes that I can sell it to someone else for at least the same amount, or more. And I am not in the investment business.
You might see a really great still life with signature, but find that the artist has no auction records. This merely means that nobody has put one of her paintings at auction. Well, I consider this an opportunity! I don’t tell myself “wow, she’s unlisted; I guess it’s not a good painting.” It IS a good painting: I can see this with my own eyes!
In a separate blog article I address buying paintings as investments (something I generally discourage). Paintings pay huge dividends for the money spent (I personally can’t think of anything better to spend my money on, other than my kids’ food and education), but not necessarily by increasing in realizable value over time.
To sum up: a painter with hundreds of auction listings is likely to be a prolific painter, highly traded, better known and more expensive. Which is okay if you can afford it (but don’t necessarily expect to make money if you decide to flip the painting – remember, you don’t have a gallery and will be selling the painting at wholesale, not retail). My best tip would be to understand that paintings by more lightly listed artists can often be a real bargain, since there’s not a foundation for valuation, so nobody knows how to value them. And buyers are mostly insecure – they want to be told what something is “worth.”
Let’s face it: the value of a painting is often arbitrary anyway. So if you see a wonderful painting, priced affordably because the painter isn’t famous and few or no paintings have been sent to auction, I say: jump right on it! After all, you’re buying it for your pleasure, not for some future time when you’ll cash it in for big bucks. Leave that to the very few, very rich artworld insiders who can afford to take chances with millions of dollars (and lose as often as they win).