Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on June 22, 1998 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Roger Dunbier, PhD
What is it about paintings that make them such a bargain in today1s art market? Why are so many of the best American artist1s works going for bargain basement prices? Take my word for it, it is a fact.
If you have heard otherwise or interpreted what you have heard or read otherwise, forget it. Collecting painting by artists considered the best in their day can be done today for less than at any time during the lifetime of the average collector. "Nonsense," you say. Well don't be too sure.
First, the Beanie Babies. If you do not know what they are, which I didn't until a few days ago; they are soft, very small stuffed animals in assorted species and colors. They are manufactured in China and sold or used as promotions in this country. According to "Mary Beth's Beanie World," the authoritative magazine subscribed to by collectors, there are "179 varieties and various generations of each or 600 Beanie Babies in all." The magazine values a complete collection at $100,000. Peanut the Elephant--the estimate at $5,200; Brownie the Bear at $4,750; Nana the Monkey at $4,400: well you can see how a collection, which by the way would fill a single duffle bag to overflowing, could amount to the one-hundred thousand dollar figure.
With the assumption that all of this has some validity, let us leave the world of soft small animals and proceed to fine art: to Christies auction house in New York at an April 9 sale of this year.
For the sake of argument, let us assume you are a neophyte collector and have eschewed the Beanie Baby duffle and still have your one-hundred thousand intact. You arrive at 219 East 67th Street in New York at a little before 10:00 AM on 9 April and by the end of that day Christies has just about all of your money. You however have the following oil paintings:
With the $2,365 you have remaining, you can have dinner at a New York restaurant and go home with twenty canvases.
Now this is exactly how NOT to go about starting to be an art collectorÐdoing it all in one day at Christies. It is nothing more than an exercise in what one-hundred thousand dollars can obtain today in an undervalued art market. Be it understood that these paintings have framing and some condition problems. They are NOT the best efforts by these artists. But this reflection by this particular group "ain't all that bad." It may or may not come close to filling your walls. And it will have deprived you of those Beanie Babies!
The question remains, how is it that miniature bean bags in the shape of animals produced by the thousands in China achieve prices that on some occasions rival one of a kind works of art?
Turning that around, why do paintings by some of the best artists this country has produced fetch prices equivalent to a mass produced stuffed animal? Are we living on some shore Gulliver by-passed?
The answer to these questions I believe is in the main very simple. Paintings can be collected but fail to constitute a collectible. This has long been recognized in the language, but its economic consequences have been little emphasized.
Webster's unabridged defines a collectible as "any of a class of old things but not antiques that people collect as a hobby." The advertisements say "Fine Art Antiques" and "Collectibles." The last include items which usually cost little when new or may have been given away as premiums, etc. This is generally understood in the language be it in the dictionary in the ads, or in general usage. But what does this mean in terms of money and what is going on that works to the detriment of painting? In money, collectible has added value, not being collectible fails an important test. Painting fails.
Many readers I am sure were or possibly still are stamp collectors. Postage stamps represent collectibles in spades. One has a catalogue which thoroughly enumerates all of the issues and prices them. In addition there is an album wherein little printed frames march across the pages waiting to be filled with your miniature adhesives. An empty page or worse yet one that is partially filled cries out for completion. Insidiously, the album works exactly with the catalogue so that the value of the page with its stamps can be determined with some considerable accuracy.
At the extreme, the need to complete a collection drives the price of difficult to obtain, rare, or scarce items to levels beyond the comprehension of non-collectors. Even if some of the elements above are absent, say the catalogue with prices, the desire to complete a series, to obtain a totality drives the collector---Autographs of ALL the 1927 New York Yankees, EVERY motorcycle license design issued by New Mexico and Colorado, etc. EVERY TV Guide containing a listing for "Dragnet." On and on but always with the knowledge that there are outside dimension of that particular collectible.
In the art world, some of this collectible mind-set may take hold. Prints, since they are produced in well documented editions and in considerable numbers, allow those so inclined to obtain every print by an individual graphic artist. Bronze sculptures offer the same opportunity at a higher price.
In sharp contrast, oil painting, watercolors, pastels and line drawing, etc. do not allow for this type of collecting. Yet there are some exceptions. It is possible to collect something by the hand of every one of The Eight or Ten American Artists or Cowboy Artists of America. It has and is I believe being done, but pretty much by accident, and there is very little structure to this kind of collecting. It is in this fact that the failure exists and the opportunity lies.
Painting in the hands of any single artist on any single day may take the shape of a variety of dimensions, mediums, and subject matter ad infinitum, but these externals provide no foundation for the collector seeking a frame work to collectibility. Given many days in many years with thousands of painters living and deceased, the problem is only compounded because so much is available and is so diverse.
What I am emphasizing is that with no parameters, it is impossible to define and complete a collection. If you don't know what you're collecting, you cannot call what you have a collection nor yourself a collector. However, one must be careful here, because you can, through definition, exclude yourself and all those people who own paintings from the category of being a collector. That is too glib and not my intention.
My purpose is to provide those that care for paintings and own them an additional reason for that interest and ownership. This is a mechanism to enhance, indeed create collectibility.
What must be done to make oneself a collector? To my way of thing, these are three absolute essentials:
You say this is quite an order. Well, what did you expect? If you want to play in the big leagues of collecting, you can't expect to get there without some considerable effort.
Fine Art ain't Beanie Babies!
© 1998 Roger Dunbier
About the Author:
From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype. With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies. Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.
Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers. In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System. Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database. (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)
Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home. Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents. He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history. He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959. During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team. In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford. His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.
After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine. He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix. In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.
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