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Artist Estates . . . Quandry After Death; The Wealth and Burden of “Left Over” Art

by Gary John Gresl

To begin with, for matters of disclosure, this author operated in the antiques business for several decades. In that position I often encountered situations in which the posthumous estate of an artist, including dozens or hundreds of original art work, remained unsold, in storage and without plans. These caches of art become part of the “after-market”, the second hand culture that is always with us. In various cases these hoards are sold on consignment to second hand dealers and auctioneers at low prices, offered en masse to museums and institutions without good result, deliberately destroyed or allowed to deteriorate in poor storage conditions.

It matters little that the artist was a college professor and/or successful as a commercial artist, it has been and still is difficult to dispose of all that remaining art. The amount of unsold art after the artist’s demise means that the market cannot absorb it in short order. This state of affairs is repeated all the time. It might take decades to see to the eventual disposal of the accumulated art…if there is a solution at all.

The seeming blessing of “left over” art becomes a burden for the heirs, though it still holds the potential of providing some ongoing income. The fact is that this supply of art comes with strings. The accumulation must be stored and carefully handled, protected from deterioration and theft, perhaps restored, and maybe it must be maintained for decades across several generations.

If you have attempted to find proper storage for dozens of paintings or sculptures, you know the difficulties. Basements, attics and extra rooms can be crammed and unkind to the art. Commercial storage units can in time cost a fortune, especially if they are climate controlled and secure. Storage costs can eat up the potential value of what is being stored.

Trying to sell from a large cache can prove to have unsuspected problems. For example,
finding persons interested in purchasing this “left over” art usually requires that the monetary values be adjusted downward. Selling or donating art of well known artists to museums can be difficult due to museum limited needs and means. How many works by one artist do museums really require, and how many interested museums exist? There are risks in devaluing the collection and the work already in collections or on the market, due to knowledge that a large number of pieces are available, especially if they are offered at low prices.

I have witnessed estate sales in which art objects in large numbers were sold, either in the artists’ homes or at auction sites…with disappointing results. Even if the artist had a healthy reputation in his/her lifetime, the marketplace will usually be slow to absorb the artwork. The number of collectors will be limited, either because they already own similar work or can only absorb a limited number of pieces. If hundreds of works survive after an artist death, it will be very important to control and gradual dispose the work in order to avoid a free fall in value.

To add to the dilemma, besides the art work itself, there is the accumulation of artist records, images, personal papers, etc., which deserve to be studied, sorted and cared for while a depository is sought. Unless the artist was of historical significance, these records may never find a home and end up being destroyed.


Obviously plans should be made before the death of an artist, if that is at all possible. But there are limits to what can be accomplished. First the ego of the artist, and of his heirs, may skew decisions toward unreasonable goals. Despite a life time of building a good reputation and having exhibits and sales, the sudden availability of a large quantity of art will have the traits already described above. But still, for the inheritors to have some direction from the living artist can help.

Those involved in handling the estate should determine the following:

Rank the works according to quality, desirability and monetary value. Calling in and paying for an objective appraiser may be very useful and worth the investment. Be cautious in accepting the opinions of persons who may have either personal or monetary interests at the forefront, or an exaggerated elevated or even low opinion of the artist and work.
Before attempting to dispose of the works, determine definitely what pieces are to be retained by family members or friends. Don’t call in potential buyers only to tempt them with work that is not available.
Determine what institutions regionally and nationally might have interest in accepting work, either as donation or by purchase. Tax benefits might be earned by donations.
Rank the desirability of these institutions that can include (a) museums (b) schools and universities (c) religious organizations (d) governmentally recognized not-for-profit organizations. Consider the terms of donations, for example whether or not the art work can be resold by the accepting entities for their own purposes. Don’t hamper their ability to use the work to their best advantage or you may lose their interest.
Consider that sometimes getting work into a museum/institution can help buoy up values and future sales, as well as creating a legacy for the artist which may be more important than the cash value.
Perhaps the artist while alive, or the heirs later, should designate a means of funding the posthumous collection, creating an endowment or cash supply to help pay for storage, restoration, and costs borne by disposal. This may have tax benefits as well. The sale of some of the work can help build this fund. Speaking to estate lawyers or an institution like the Greater Milwaukee Foundation can help in setting up such funds.
Remember that an attempt for a quick sale of a large group of work may not be in the long term interest of the heirs or the reputation of the deceased.
Use discretion in publicizing the conditions surrounding the estate. Appearing too eager, discouraged, confused or distressed may be harmful.
Perhaps creating a professionally organized exhibit of some part of the collection can enhance its appeal and bolster the reputation and monetary value. This will require time and patience.
If it is necessary to dispose of the bulk of a collection in short time, seek the advice of recognized authorities associated with the type of art work and the artist’s place in the culture and history. First look for persons or organizations that have no financial interest when giving advice, though one may have to eventually find firms with experience in selling estates, whether an experienced auction house or another type of estate handler with good reputation.


The author has considered the creation of a company/organization specifically designed to assist in the disposition of artist estates after death. With the huge number of artists who exist today, it is probable that the problems inherent in posthumous estates are larger than we might believe, and are problems that will grow in coming years. Besides paintings, prints and sculpture, consider the number of those who create photographs, ceramics, glass and all manner of work. The quantity may be so great that a well operated artist estate company of this nature would eventually be faced with difficulties of screening and acceptance due to a large influx of opportunities.

The stumbling blocks to creating such a company to assist artist estates are similar to problems artists face during their lifetimes, such as protected storage and care, moving, exhibition and finding buyers. I envision a building operated much like an art gallery, but dealing with work provided by the heirs or controllers of estates. The first large physical problem is locating a site that provides substantial protected storage of art which is also located for easy public access….hopefully in an area already seen as art friendly.

There would be periodic exhibits of art work left in the care of the company, promoted and enhanced as good gallerists would do. When not on display, access to artist work in storage should be fairly simple and knowledge of its existence should be promoted at all times. The histories and accomplishments of the artists should be promulgated for both historical and promotional reasons. Web and hard copy publication of artist histories and available art should be a daily practice. The facility can serve as a sales outlet “and” a safe depository with research capabilities.

Good business methods and standards obviously must be created and maintained, which includes considerations for salaries of employees, promotional means and expenses, facility maintenance and improvement, tax implications, record keeping, legal ramifications, etc.

Expenses would be paid for by charges to those involved in the artist estates which are stored and handled, thru annual storage fees, perhaps reasonable small commissions upon sale of work, charges for agreed upon conservation of specific pieces, fees derived from students, scholars and potential venues to which work is lent. Professional services can be offered for lectures, advice and consultation, research and publication of histories and monographs.

A diversified staff and/or access to specialized consultants must be established. This would include persons familiar with advertising and retail services, with art history knowledge, with empathy and sensitivity to personal matters and relationships.

Besides locating a useful facility, an obvious initial obstacle is gaining the confidence of artists, their families and estate advisers. Promoting and advertising the facility and its activities will take initial capital and time. These are not matters to be handled by the naïve and inexperienced, or by someone with little capital and low risk threshold. Rather those rare persons who combine altruism and with deep pockets must most likely again be called upon…or at least those persons who are in positions of influence.

Solutions to what happens to artist legacies, their real material work, will always remain problematic, but perhaps the idea presented here may be a place to start the conversation.

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