Jalal Luqman wears two hats: artist and art consultant. As an artist his role is fairly straightforward. As a consultant, it’s more complex. He has to decide if he needs to organise a big social gathering to showcase and sell an artist to people who might otherwise never visit a gallery, or organise a media blitz that will do the job.
“It would depend on the track record of the artist and the price their paintings were sold for previously,” says Luqman of his latter role. But, he hastens to add, “This is not a foolproof system. Because an artist who is successful in Los Angeles need not necessarily be as successful in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. A lot of other aspects come into play – the location, the culture and heritage, what is acceptable or not acceptable, etc. We try to arrive at the middle ground.”
Luqman has an established PR and marketing technique. “We have members from the media who follow what we do and put us on their cultural agenda. We also have a vast database of media persons, VIPs, buyers, collectors, other galleries and artists, and also ensure a balance between the print promotion of the artist and online.
“If the artist is not an Emirati, we contact the embassy of the country he belongs to, to get important nationals to grace the event. It is not only an artistic event but also an opportunity to bridge people from different cultures.”
Salwa Zeidan, artist and owner of Salwa Zeidan Gallery in Abu Dhabi, doesn’t depend on social events to sell an exhibition. “It’s not that difficult to sell art to people who typically do not visit galleries, especially these days when it is much easier than before to promote art in multiple ways via technology,” she says.
Amel Makkawi, owner of Art Sawa, one of the foremost galleries in Dubai, also believes that creating a buzz around an artist is an important element in the name build-up.
“When an artist is exhibiting solo you have to create a buzz around the show; it’s almost like organising a fashion show. And launching a new collection by an artist is very much like the launching of a new book. It has to find its audience.”
The bottom line however is that despite the buzz and gala events, collectors won’t buy if they think the price isn’t right. The price of a painting is in many ways the most tricky code to crack for success, an art in itself.
But what exactly does this art involve?
“A little bit of everything,” says Makkawi.
“An artist in mid-career can’t be clubbed with an upcoming artist. It may seem simplistic but that’s how it works. An artist’s price goes steadily up if he’s been exhibited, participated in a prestigious art biennale, or shown abroad. And of course, if there’s demand for his work!”
Zeidan agrees that pricing an art piece has to do with the artist himself. “If he is already in auction houses, naturally the price goes up,” she says. “Of course, his age and the quality of his work also play a big role in the artist’s price. If his work is in demand, this will make his prices go up naturally.”
Luqman adds, “If you visit enough art festivals and exhibitions and galleries, you start developing a feel for what is the worth of these pieces. For example, an artist who’s been in the market for maybe four to five years, put a price of Dh2.5m on one of his paintings recently. Based on what? I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t pay that much for it.
To me it seems like he’s trying to get attention. He eventually sold that painting for Dh25,000.”
And therein lies the problem, he says. Art, by its very nature, is subjective. It is a matter of taste. “But when you look at art as a commodity, it is not subjective at all. It is a very structured market. It is a market subject to the usual push and pull of supply and demand, which is why a dead artist is richer than one who’s alive.”
Insiders in the art world claim that setting a price for a piece of art is fundamental to an artist’s survival. Also crucial is to have a perspective on the artist’s work and knowledge of his point of view. Zeidan believes in this: “A realistic pricing will reflect on the future of the artist big time, and knowing how to arrive at that pricing is a very important process. It is almost as important as knowing the craft.”
Are there any rules to setting the price? “There are no rules,” says Luqman. “It depends on who the collectors or buyers are. I can be a nobody but if a millionaire buys a small sketch of mine for $17m (approx. Dh62.5m) tomorrow, I am off this index. So the rule is money.”
Zeidan says, “Setting the price can be tricky and a lot depends on the first exhibition of the artist and how established the gallery is. Then every one or two years, depending on the popularity of the artist, his prices will increase by around 20 to 25 per cent.”
One of the guiding beliefs in the art world is that artists whose worth keeps increasing should keep raising their prices every year. “If the demand for the artist’s works is really high, he can increase his prices every year,” says Zeidan. “And once his work gets sold in an auction at a high price, then it’s up to him or his gallery to increase the price but it’s better to take this step very carefully.”
Luqman agrees it is better to go slow on the price raise. “If they are still honest to what made them successful in the beginning, then it’s fine [to raise prices every year],” he says. “But many a time it happens that artists do well with a show, and then in the next season their totally new collection does not get sold. The agent however tells them it is a great collection and to keep showing it but the truth is, can you go back and paint the stuff that sells? This is a touchy subject.”
Makkawi has a different view on price rises. “I don’t advise my artists to increase their prices every year arbitrarily, but yes, an escalation is warranted given that costs are constantly on the rise. That’s logical.”
Some gallerists and dealers treat art prices like a business while others try not to break the price down to cost per square foot of the canvas, somewhat like what happens in real estate.
Zeidan’s advice is to take a comprehensive view of all aspects of an artist’s work before getting into the price point race, such as the number of solo exhibitions, the number of pieces he produces, the mediums he uses, his approach to his art and his artistic vision are all important elements that guide his price.
The one thing that flies in the face of simple logic according to Luqman is the lateral connection between the size of a painting, the materials used and its final price. “You never quantify the price of a painting based on the materials used,” he says. “Otherwise the most expensive painting may actually be worth Dh500. You don’t pay for the craftsmanship, or even the talent. What you pay for is the artistic value of the painting. Size doesn’t matter.”
Makkawi concurs. “A bigger painting is not necessarily priced higher. But yes, there is a ratio to pricing paintings, and one of the criteria is the size. However, it’s not the rule. It depends on the work, the year of production, and so on. It will also depend on the period it was created – whether it was during the highly creative phase of the artist or during a lean period.”
Does the subject of the painting dictate the price? Zeidan doesn’t think so. “The subject of the painting doesn’t really play a big role. Sometimes one single stroke sells much more than a painting full of details,” she says. “It’s always the name of the artist that matters, and the degree of fame he enjoys.”
Luqman agrees. “The last couple of major art shows in the UAE revealed that it was digital photography that was most popular. The audience liked the way it changed perceptions and challenged traditions. It was provocative. It had nothing to do with the medium.”
Generally, drawings are said to fetch the lowest prices, followed by watercolours. Oil paintings and sculptures are priced the highest, if you take works by the same artist, says Zeidan. But not in Luqman’s opinion. “Not necessarily. I can show you a paper sketch that sold at €50,000 (approx Dh263,000). It was a pencil sketch; it depends on the track record of the artist, how much of a commodity the artist has become.”