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How to Make Art They'll Fight Over When You're Gone

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by Alan Bamberger

Imagine that one night in the very distant future your great-great-great-great grandchildren and their families, suspended in their enviropods, are watching Antiques Roadshow (now in its 143rd season) on videoport.

Suddenly a piece of your art appears on a velvet pedestal, surrounded by lights and cameras. The resident expert ogles and fondles the piece and then gushes and expounds on how important your art is as its owner beams with pride. And the capper is the preposterous amount of money it’s now worth! If only you could have made 1/100th that amount in your entire career, you would have been thrilled beyond belief.

Meanwhile back here in the present, you know your art’s likely going to be around for a long time and if you’re like most artists, you’d rather see it someday spotlighted and critiqued by experts than crammed into a storage unit, sitting in the dollar box at the local thrift mart, or worse yet, tossed into a dumpster.

The good news is that you can experience future art stardom, even in your lifetime, by taking a lesson or two from Antiques Roadshow and learning what factors differentiate those few special objects from the countless trunk loads of humdrum junk that gets paraded before the show’s specialists and experts. 

These inanimate stars, from Barbie dolls to bronzes, are almost all art-related in one way or another, and they share common characteristics in how they thrive and increase in both historical significance and value with the passage of time. The more of these characteristics you can incorporate into your art, the more meaning and value it’s likely to have not only now, but way into the future as well.

The most common shared trait among Antiques Roadshow standouts is the amount of effort that goes into producing them. When significant amounts of time, thought, skill, technique, care, and energy are spent creating things beautiful and enduring, that’s special. So above all, take your art seriously. Never compromise on quality, and only let it leave your studio once you’re convinced that you’ve done the absolute best job you can.

Condition is an essential consideration when assessing an object’s value. The most sought-after pieces are in the most immaculate condition. For you, this means one thing: make your art to last. Use whatever materials and techniques are necessary for it to look as fresh, vibrant, and sturdy 100 years from now as it does the moment it leaves your studio. Be aware that collectors appreciate durable, well-made art right now just as much as they will in the future.

Watch how the experts handle valuable objects, what they pay attention to, and how they comment. They go well beyond how things appear on the surface and carefully inspect them over and under, back and front, up and down, top and bottom, sideways and everywhere else. This means that your art should look as beautiful on the parts that viewers normally don’t see as it does on the parts that they do—on the back, the sides, the top and bottom, and everywhere else. 

Pay attention to every detail. For example, a painting that looks as well-made from the back as it does from the front is always more desirable than a comparable painting that’s equally appealing from the front, but sloppy or slapdash on the back.

Roadshow standouts are original. You never see a copy or reproduction or re-do or obvious interpretation of something that already exist. So be original; don’t be afraid to experiment with what’s never been done before or to go where no artist has gone just because you think it might not sell or that someone might not approve. Use art by other artists as sources of inspiration, not sources of imitation.

The story behind an object, even when the object isn’t worth big bucks, is often what entertains, intrigues, and attracts viewers (and adds historical significance as well as dollar value over comparable objects without stories). Make sure you tell your art’s story. This may take the form of a blog, social networking page, image page, written journal, a video, photographs of you at work in your studio, or printed materials that accompany every piece you produce. At all future points, people should understand what they’re looking at, why you made it, how you got the ideas, and other incidentals that will contribute to their overall enjoyment and appreciation of your art. A work of art without a story is just another pretty picture.

Hand-in-hand with a good story goes good provenance, that is, the ownership history of an object. Good provenance contributes substantially to a work of art’s significance and value from authenticity as well as historical standpoints. A well-documented ownership and exhibition history always enhances the value of an object over that of a comparable object with no documentation. Keep track of who buys your art, when and where it sells, how much it sells for, which pieces show at galleries, which pieces get exhibited at notable shows, which win awards, which get reviewed or critiqued, and so on.

Many Roadshow relics are historical. They offer insight into the times during which they were produced by capturing seminal moments of days gone by. Think about how people will look at your art in 100 years. What will make it historical? What will make it stand out? How will it reflect what’s happening now? How does what’s happening now—either within you or without—influence the art you create? The clearer you are on these issues and the better you chronicle them in relation to your art, the greater the chances of that art becoming documents of the times rather than footnotes.

Listen to collectors talk about why they cherish their antiques and collectibles, why they buy them, or why they keep them in their families for generations. Sure, some items were killer bargains at garage sales, but most share qualities of beauty, style, craftsmanship, uniqueness, endurance, fascination, and other details that make them stand out from all other objects. The greater the number of these characteristics that you incorporate into your art, the more keepers and the fewer throwaways you'll produce for people during the course of your illustrious career.

Alan Bamberger is an art consultant, appraiser, and author who lives and works in San Francisco. He is the author of The Art of Buying Art and has worked with artists and gallery owners around the world. You can view more of Alan's work and find information about his services at his website www.artbusiness.com.

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