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Acquiring art comes down to two words — “How much?” For such a popular question, the answer is exceedingly difficult to find. Artists, dealers and collectors alike guard their figures carefully, for in the world of unregulated commerce, trade secrets build empires.

Conversations about art and finance mirror any personal discourse beginning with, “we need to talk.” Accordingly, you’ll want to address this sensitive topic with aplomb. So, the next time you find yourself in a situation (preferably in-person) inquiring about an artist’s figures… consider asking these eight questions.

Like the ‘need to talk’ situation, you’ll want hear the answers, but read the body language and delivery for true wisdom.

1. How did you establish your price point?

Why It Works: This is a fine way to breach the subject. It’s a direct question, but allows the artist to confidently share a lower-than-current price.

Takeaway: Unless you are speaking with a newly minted artist, this information should be rote. If the response isn’t fluid and well-rehearsed, they are either misleading you about the information, have someone managing their career, or are simply trying to be mysterious… as artists are wont to do.

Red Flag: Most artists can write a novella about their first sale, if they can’t recall the details — it’s a problem.

Tell Me About Your Price Range © Borbay

2. How have your sales progressed over the years?

Why It Works: While it seems like a common-sense question — for new, emerging and even some mid-career artists, this may catch them off guard. Responding to an unexpected query will often lead to more information being delivered without prompt.

Takeaway: This answer will tell you how much understanding and direct control an artist has over their market.

Red Flag: If the prices jump exponentially at some point, inquire why… if he doesn’t have a reason, such as an auction result or increased exposure due to a massive piece of press, there could be some skullduggery occurring.

3. What is your current price range?

Why It Works: The figure any artist will most easily divulge is their price range.

Takeaway: If the range fits in reasonably with the entry point to the market and price evolution, the information is likely legitimate.

Red Flag: If an artist provides a vast range, such as, “between $10,000 and $75,000″ — be wary. Caveat: if she says, “between $10,000 – $15,000, but I do have market outliers… I recently sold a series of 5″X5″ paintings for $1000 a piece, and once created a 40 foot mural for $75,000″ —  everything is copacetic.

4. Is your work priced by size?

Why It Works: This is something every artist working in different sizes has considered carefully, and should be able to articulate.

Takeaway: Artists modifying price by size will have an equation to share. Others may say, “yes, generally larger works are more expensive, but a smaller series I created is on par with my large works due to the intensive detail.” If their response makes sense, proceed.

Red Flag: If they price by size, but cannot explain why or how, you should consider the information arbitrary, and thus, dangerous.

5. How often do you increase your prices?

Why It Works: Any developing artist with three or more years of experience will have a general price development strategy.

Takeaway: Price increases based on market strength and artistic development are appropriate. Even if the artist stumbles on future strategies, the ability to outline previous hikes is validation enough.

Red Flag: Bumping the market “just because” is a problem — this means in hard times, prices will fall out of necessity — this fluctuation is the first sign of a cratering market.

6. Where do you see your market going in the next five years? Ten?

Why It Works: This answer will also provide a window into the long term growth and development of an artist.

Takeaway: Don’t read too much into this answer, as many artists don’t have five, or ten year plans. However, if an artist capably answers this question, be encouraged by her long term growth potential.

Red Flag: While unlikely, if the artist predicts they will be doing something other than art in five to ten years, proceed with caution.

7. How do your commission prices compare to your existing body of work?

Why It Works: If the artist works on commission, they will have a reason why commissions are over/under their general price points.

Takeaway: If an artist’s commission prices are 10-20% higher than his existing body of work, this makes sense. Conversely, for many artists starting out, commissions will be lower because they represent guaranteed money, based on the standard 50%-upon-signing model.

Red Flag: If the commission prices are vastly different from their spec work, this could indicate inexperience, and ultimately, may create a long-term market imbalance.

8. How active has your secondary market been?

Why It Works: This question will immediately identify the artist’s career point — typically, new and emerging artists will have no secondary market to speak of.

Takeaway: If the artist does have auction results, you can compare them to her current price points. Also, if they are aware of how many pieces have been re-sold by collectors, this represents careful management of their career.

Red Flag: If they boast of a massive result (over $30,000) you can’t verify online, and/or have no idea if existing works have been re-sold by collectors — this demonstrates a both a lack of honesty and inventory control. Both are problematic.

Now head over to Instagram and find some art to collect.

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