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Paint By Numbers

Artists and collectors looking to cash in on the reported one percent’s run on the international art market can take cues from a recent Washington State University study on auction house sales of paintings by Picasso, Magritte, Munch, and a dozen other impressionist and modern masters. Among the preliminary findings, a single percentage point increase in Google hits on the artist—the assigned indicator of popularity—corresponded to a chunky price increase of 38 percent.

Arzu Aysin Tekindor, an artist and economics PhD candidate, employed hedonic regression theory—a modeling system to estimate demand relative to a product’s price and characteristics. The data set: 1,100 paintings auctioned from 1998 to 2011, a random selection of works by famous artists living in the 19th and 20th centuries.

So far, Tekindor’s study has shown that winning bidders paid more for works depicting an artist’s usual subject matter (e.g., nude women, apples, Scary Movie-style characters) and painting style (Cubist, Expressionist, Fauvist), and they valued subject matter over style. Least surprising finding? An artist’s signature increased the price of a work by 50 percent.

Previous gifting of a work to anyone—friends, Mom, a lover—decreased the price by 29 percent per incident; swapping works with other artists did the same. While each time a work sold at auction decreased the price by 15 percent, multiple owners increased it by 8.5 percent with each exchange. A work’s size was insignificant, but the greater the age of the artist at the time it was created, the better, adding 5.2 percent to the price per year.


Then again, the study’s most expensive piece, Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe, deemed a minor work by some, was painted by the then 24-year-old Spaniard in Paris in 1905, but first sold 45 years later for $30,000—to the art collector and socialite Betsey Whitney and her husband, John, the New York publishing honcho. When it next came up for sale, at Sotheby’s in 2004, it set an auction world record of $104 million.

The current record holder, Munch’s pastel drawing The Scream, brought $119.9 million a few months back at Sotheby’s, unseating Picasso’s oil Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, auctioned at Christie’s in 2010 for $106.5 million. Which begs a companion study factoring YouTube appearances, whether the work launched a memeor a Warhol homage, and number of cameos on South Park and The Simpsons.