Investing in an Artist’s Oeuvre – artmarketblog.com
When you invest in a work of art, especially by a deceased artist, you are essentially investing not in just one work of art but in the artist’s entire body of work which is known as an oeuvre. An oeuvre is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a substantial body of work constituting the lifework of a writer, an artist, or a composer”. When it comes to documenting an artist’s oeuvre a publication called a catalogue raisonné is usually published which lists all known works by a particular artist. What I want to look at in this post is the rather important question of what should be included in an artist’s oeuvre and how what is included in an artist’s oeuvre can have an effect on the market for an artist’s work.
Considering that an artist’s oeuvre is supposed to be the entire body of work an artist produced throughout their career it would seem to make sense that every single piece of art they produced should be included. Or does it?. I recently spoke to the widow of one of Australia’s most famous and highly valued artists who was responsible for documenting her late husband’s oeuvre. Instead of just including everything in the oeuvre she undertook a very extensive examination of her late husband’s work and made decisions relating to what should and should not be included in the oeuvre. Her decisions were based on the theory that everything an artist produces is not necessarily produced as a work of art and should therefore not be included in a documentation of that artist’s body of work. An example was given where people who visited the studio of her late husband would take doodles or sketches out of the bin with the intention of selling them some time in the future. With many such pieces, which would be unsigned and undocumented, now infiltrating the market, the question of whether they should be included in the artist’s oeuvre becomes rather important. The reason it becomes important is because the size of an artist’s oeuvre can dictate how much demand there is for an artist’s work and also because what is included in an artist’s oeuvre can effect people’s perception of the artist’s whole oeuvre.
The oeuvre of the Australian artist used in the example I gave earlier is very small compared to other artists and is undoubtedly a contributing factor in the high value put on the artist’s work because a smaller oeuvre means that demand for an artist’s work is going to be higher because there are less works available on the market. Imagine for a second that an artist produced hundreds and hundreds of doodles and sketches that the artist did not intend to ever display or sell. Because the artist did no intend these pieces to be viewed or sold they are probably not going to be very good quality and are probably completely meaningless in the scheme of things as well as being worth very little. If hundreds of such pieces became available a whole market of lower priced, low quality and probably meaningless bits of paper would be created for that artist which would undoubtedly have an effect on people’s perceptions of the artist’s whole body of work. When it comes to the market for the artist’s work the addition of hundreds of meaningless, low value and poor quality pieces to those genuine works available on the market could change people’s perception of the value of the artist’s work as a whole.
I can understand why those in charge of artist’s estates go to such extreme lengths to protect the integrity and stability of an artist’s oeuvre because, when it comes to the work of deceased artists, the stability and integrity of the artist’s oeuvre has a strong influence on the value of an artist’s work and the way people perceive the desirability of an artist’s work. The estate of Jackson Pollock is a good example of an estate that is ruthless when it comes to protecting and preserving an artist’s oeuvre. The Pollock-Krasner foundation have produced a complete catalogue raisonne of Pollock’s work and will not allow any additions to that raisonne unless they are 100% certain that the work is genuine and that it is part of the artist’s oeuvre. Considering that Pollock is one of the most highly valued and desirable artists ever means that any alteration to the artist’s oeuvre could have major repercussions.
By not recognising pieces not meant to be viewed as works of art in the documentation of her late husband’s oeuvre the widow of the artist used in the example earlier is able to maintain the integrity and stability of her late husband’s oeuvre by ensuring that fakes are not recognised as genuine works and that works not meant to be included in the artist’s oeuvre are not not recognised as works of art. Maintaining the integrity and stability of the entire oeuvre will consequently have a positive effect on the integrity, desirability and value of each individual work. When investing in a work of art by a deceased artist it is always a good idea to do some research on the artist’s oeuvre to see whether it is managed by anyone and whether it is stable and has maintained it’s integrity over a period of time. It is also a good idea to make sure that if you are purchasing a work by an artist whose oeuvre has been documented in a catalogue raisonne that the work you are purchasing appears in that catalogue otherwise the work may be fake or may require authentication by the artist’s estate or by an authentication organisation. The moral of the story is that an artist’s oeuvre is very important to the value and desirability of an individual work of art so make sure you know what you are buying into especially if you are buying for investment purposes.
**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.com, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.