Q: I’m deciding what to do with my possessions in the unlikely event of my death and am wondering who should control the sale of my art. I have well over 400 pieces at my studio. Should my wife and children handle it or should that responsibility go to one or more of the dealers who’ve represented me over the years? How about donating everything to a museum?
A: Leaving art in control of immediate family members often does more harm than good. They lack appropriate understanding of how the art business works, cannot promote the art effectively, confuse sentimentality with dollar value, are unsure of what to sell and what to hold, and have difficulty distinguishing opportunists from helpful dealers, collectors or agents. They tend to quote potential buyers prices that are beyond retail, want too large a percentage of the profits when working through agents or consultants, and ignore requests of legitimate dealers to offer the work at sensible prices. Getting the art out into the public becomes difficult and in extreme cases, an artist’s market can be significantly damaged.
Less often, family members grossly undervalue the art and either sell it off in bulk to dealers or occasionally destroy pieces out that they regard as insignificant or that they simply don’t like. Once again, personal feelings predominate over reason. In these cases, the artist has failed to convey the value of the art as well as provide specific instruction on how to maintain and sell it.
Best procedure is to make arrangements with a gallery or galleries to represent your work. If you’ve had reasonable success in your career, engaging the services of an arts attorney is probably a good idea. The decision on whether to have family members sit in on negotiations or to simply present them with the final contract is up to you.
When negotiating, specify wholesale and retail price structures (by the piece, according to size, medium, etc.), dealer commissions, methods of payment, percentages of profits that go to specific family members, and how and where the art is to be stored, maintained, and accessed. Ultimately, dealers should have control over whether and how much to raise or lower selling prices in the future, so don’t be too rigid or insistent here. When a percentage of the art is to remain in the family, leave complete instructions on how to appraise, sell or donate it if or when those situations arise. Lastly, make sure every piece is catalogued and classified according to your agreement.
If you don’t have a solid relationship with a gallery, consider establishing one now. Another option would be to contract with an agent to represent your work. In either case, make sure you have adequate referrals from artists and collectors before proceeding. Since you’ll be dealing with a stranger, enlist the services of an arts attorney and a neutral appraiser in order to protect your interests.
As for donating to museums, contact only those institutions that have expressed interest in your work and donate only what they ask for. Don’t insist that anyone take more than they want or donate to places who aren’t familiar with your work. Excess or unwanted art is usually refused altogether, accepted but placed into eternal storage, or ends up on tables at white elephant sales. Only consider a mass donation if your primary reason is tax related, but make sure you fully understand IRS procedures and get formal appraisals for tax purposes well ahead of time.
You can further enhance the future market for your art by making sure that everything is signed, dated or otherwise labeled including sketches, drawings, and lesser items. In situations where artists leave behind quantities of unsigned works, those representing the estates are forced to make estate stamps or provide other forms of certification after the fact. Dealers and collectors view these pieces as less desirable because the artists never took time to sign them and, therefore, pay less for them.
Also document as many pieces as possible in terms of age, significance, and other relevant details. Good documentation increases understanding of the art as well as its value. Collectors prefer knowing the history behind what they’re buying and pay for that privilege. You younger artists should think about starting this now while everything is fresh in your minds.