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
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
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
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.
A DREAM SOLUTION
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
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,
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
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
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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