Yesterday in a local gallery, I saw a Northwest Coast mask selling for $22,000. The price surprised me, because, ordinarily, only a recognized master could ask this sort of price. However, the carver was an artist I would characterize as an experienced journeyman – someone known for his skill an with a growing celebrity, but lacking the years and a sufficient body of work to be considered a master.
Tentatively and politely, I suggested to a gallery employee that the mask was over-priced. I was told that the carver had originally planned on asking for even more.
This was not the first time I have seen artists asking higher prices than their reputation would justify, and it never fails to arouse mixed feelings in me.
On the one hand, an artist’s ability to command a price is not tied absolutely to their reputation. If an artist can find someone to buy at what I consider an inflated price, then in the most basic sense, that is all the justification the price.
Moreover, why shouldn’t artists get the best price they can? The typical Northwest Coast artist starts by selling so cheaply that the price hardly repays the price of their labor. Part of me argues that, after years of underselling their work to keep the gallery system going, artists deserve a little bit of compensation later in their careers (although, personally, I’d like to see fairer prices for newer artists).
On the other hand, the hierarchy of prices is well-established for Northwest Coast masks. New artists’ work usually sells for less than $1500, usually with 40-60% of the retail price going to the artist. As artists become better known, their prices gradually rise, although the size of a mask and its finishing details can also affect the price. When their prices hit about $4000 for an average-sized mask, you know that the artists are starting to be respected. When the prices rise to $6,000-$8000, you know you are dealing with well-respected artists. Over $10,000, and the artists are recognized as masters. At prices above $20,000, artists have international reputations like those of Bill Reid or Robert Davidson.
Exceptions exist to this rough outline – for instance, as acknowledged masters, both Beau Dick and Henry Green could increase their prices by fifty percent or more and probably still sell. However, this hierarchy is the norm, and recognized by most Northwest Coast artists.
To go outside this pricing scale is dangerous for an artist. Prices that are set too high can condemn an artists’ work to gathering dust in the gallery. But, just as importantly, when artists set their prices higher than their status, it seems to me a form of boasting. For instance, the mask I saw yesterday seems to proclaim that the artist considers himself the equal of all the great names in Northwest Coast art – to which I can only answer that he might be some day, but he isn’t yet. The mask was certainly skilled, but it was hardly outstanding, either. I have seen (and bought) masks at a fraction of the price that I considered better works of art.
Possibly, I’m showing a middle-class crassness with these reactions. At the best of times, I find a system in which even mediocre works by a major artist are worth more than an outstanding work by an unknown artist. But I do know that I would feel foolish buying a piece at an inflated price. Even if I could afford such prices, I would feel in the back of my mind that I had been conned, and that would diminish my enjoyment of the art.
So maybe it’s just as well that the price I saw yesterday was beyond what I could afford, and that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the mask. In this case, the question of putting my money where my ambivalence is doesn’t arise. But I wonder what I would do if I see a similarly over-priced piece that I really would like about the house.