Last month, a friend phoned to ask my advice about the price of a Northwest Coast mask that he had commissioned. The price the artist had quoted seemed high to him, but he was still interested in the mask. Thanks to my frequent gallery browsing – both in person and online — I was able to reassure him that, for a piece of that size by an artist of that reputation, he was getting a reasonable price.
More recently, I saw a piece by a new artist and instantly recognized the price as too high for this moment in the artist’s career.
From these two experiences, I realized that, not only is the price of Northwest Coast masks is determined by a couple of factors – the artist’s reputation and the size and finish of the mask – but that there is a rough consensus about how those factors affect the price. This consensus exists throughout British Columbia, so, contrary to what you might expect, you are unlikely to find many bargains outside of Victoria or the Lower Mainland regions. It is undoubtedly due to the fact that galleries and artists are always comparing notes and the fact that a handful of artists are widely viewed as a guide to pricing. In particular, Beau Dick, although widely recognized as a leading carver, has never priced his works as high as he probably could, but varies his prices according to the complexity and size of his work.
As near as I can construct it, here is a list of what you can expect at each price range when you buy a Northwest Coast mask. All prices are in Canadian dollars:
- Under $2000: The largest group in this category are masks for the tourist trade, generally by artists who have few chances of selling to upscale galleries such as Douglas Reynolds. New artistically-oriented carvers and minis (masks 7×7 inches or smaller) – also fall into this category.
- $2000-$3000: In this category, you can find average-sized masks (roughly 12-14 inches high) by artists who are starting to gain a solid reputation, or simple or experimental masks by established artists. Most artists’ work does not stay in this price range for very long, except for some long-established carvers for tourists.
- $3000-$6000: This category is by far the largest. Most masks in most galleries usually fall within it. Here, you find works of average size and complexity by artists who have a modest reputation for their carving. You also occasionally, large works by lesser-known artists in this range, but the restrictions on beginning or relatively unknown artists are tight enough that such works appear only rarely.
- $6000-$10,000:This price range seems reserved for large or intricate works by artists whose work usually falls within the previous category. One of the signs of consensus is that you find relatively few artists whose prices fall consistently within this category.
- $10,000 and above: Only large and elaborate masks or normal sized ones by master carvers fall into this category. Very few masks sell above $18,000, although I have seen a Beau Dick mask over four feet tall selling for $28,000.
These ranges are only generalities. A lesser-known carver making a bid for more recognition may temporarily or permanently raise their prices, while a more established artist may lower the price on a specific piece that they feel does not represent their best work. Similarly, a smaller or larger size may bump a specific mask from the artist’s norm. Almost always, reputation trumps size: for instance, I recently saw a mini by Dempsey Bob selling for just under $5,000, a price that reflects both his fame and the fact that these days he does little non-monumental work in wood.
I should also mention that artists do not necessarily view this consensus as fair. They argue that, especially in the lower categories, it hardly pays to take the time to finish the mask – and no doubt they are right.
However, other artists figure that selling in the lower categories is a part of their career that they simply have to endure – and they are right, to. Unless an artist is lucky enough to live on commissions or has another means of exhibiting work to the public, they have little choice except to participate in a market in which both they and their work are evaluated in detail by the market.