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How to evaluate a work of art?

Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) - Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black, 1929

Those who work in the art market have quite often heard the question: “How to evaluate a work of art?” Or perhaps, the question that is asked more frequently: “How can a painting with few lines and few colours be worth millions of dollars?”

This is indeed a million-dollar question! It is not possible to provide a precise answer because art is not a science, and the market itself can never be an exact science. During an auction, for example, there is always an emotional and irrational factor (and therefore immeasurable) that can impact the final cost of the artwork. Environmental factors (holding an auction in London or Hong Kong will produce different outcomes) and even temporal factors (holding an auction in the evening or in the morning) can also influence.

However, there are more or less rational parameters that can impact and explain the value of a work of art. Let’s consider, for example, Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black, painted by Piet Mondrian in 1929. The artwork, estimated at 15-25 million dollars, was sold by Christie’s in 2015 for over 50 million dollars. How is this explained?

It has been said that there are rational parameters, and the more easily identifiable ones include: the dimensions of the artwork, technique, and state of preservation. An oil painting, for example, will certainly be valued more than a drawing or a mass-produced print.

Other more complex parameters include: the artist and their importance in art history; the year the artwork was created and its provenance; the presence of the artwork in the artist’s catalogue raisonné; attribution; the artist’s productivity over the course of their career; the presence of similar works in museums or foundations.

It is logical that the price rises if only a few works by an artist are available on the market. In the case of Mondrian, he was certainly not a very prolific artist, especially when compared to other masters of his time such as Pablo Picasso. In an auction of 20th-century artworks, it will be much easier to find a painting or drawing by Picasso than a work by Piet Mondrian.

Furthermore, Mondrian had a significant influence on the history of Modern and Contemporary art, and his works are preserved in the world’s most important museums, such as the MoMA in New York. Moreover, and perhaps this is a decisive factor that partly justifies the $50 million value, the artwork was in fact painted during the artist’s happiest and most intense period of activity. We are in the 1920s when Mondrian painted the so-called “scissored paintings” for which he is famous and recognizable worldwide.

In short, this is one of the painter’s most “classic” works. Finally, the importance of provenance should not be forgotten. An artwork that has been owned by important collectors or historical figures in the past will undoubtedly have a higher value than works of obscure or unknown origin. In the case of Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black, the artwork was even gifted by the artist to the renowned art critic and Belgian painter Michel Seuphor, who authored important texts on abstract art and a monograph on Mondrian himself.

Image: Piet Mondrian, Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black, 1929 (source: Wikipedia)

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