bq. ‘If you don’t have a lot of money, just go through the motions and educate yourself for six months. Why be in a rush about it?’—Laurel Gitlen, Director, Small A Projects


h3. How do you quantify the value of a unique work of art? It’s simple:
You can’t. But you can at least avoid getting ripped off.

"SPIT ON YOUR FINGER and wave it in the wind,” an editor once told me when I asked how much he planned to pay me to write an art review. The same advice applies to the price of art.

In very rough strokes, an artwork’s value is determined by several factors: how unique it is (e.g., paintings, which are unique, sell for more than prints, which are made in editions); how big it is; how much demand there is for the artist’s work, relative to the supply; and—playing a far murkier role in the whole equation—how “good” the work is.

But what does that tell you about how much a particular artwork is actually worth? Not a lot. Last year, a wealthy collector could have spent $2 million at auction on an editioned print by German superstar photographer Andreas Gursky—or used the same money at Portland’s Elizabeth Leach Gallery to buy 36 steel sculptures, each 7 ½ feet tall, by noted Oregon sculptor Lee Kelly. But he’d have had to multiply his investment 36 times to buy Mark Rothko’s 1950 painting, White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), which sold for $72.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction last May; or he could have spent one-sixtieth of it on a prime painting by Rothko’s (deceased) friend and contemporary, Oregon artist Carl Morris. Alternately, with his $2 million, he could have bought a pretty nice house in the West Hills.

What’s any of it truly worth? Spit on your finger.

Unlike that hypothetical collector, you’re probably aiming to spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 to $10,000 on an artwork at a local gallery—in which case, you’re in luck. Decent artwork in Portland is relatively inexpensive compared to other similarly sized cities, in part because supply far outstrips demand. That means that whether you snap up a giant, 7-foot-by-9-foot oil canvas by masterful Portland figurative painter Henk Pander (which goes for about $35,000 at Laura Russo Gallery, a price that may soon go up now that Netherlands-born Pander is building his reputation in Amsterdam, where his work is being acquired by the prestigious Rijksmuseum) or a palm-sized sculpture by emerging Portland artist Rachel Denny (recently on sale at Mark Woolley Gallery for about $400), you’re likely getting a deal.

Of course, you can still get ripped off—if you buy bad art. So, presuming you’re still training your eye, how can you feel more secure about your purchases? Start by developing relationships with reputable dealers who know the market intimately. The Portland Art Dealers Association (PADA), an organization devoted to promoting awareness of Portland’s art scene, requires its 12 member galleries to adhere to high professional standards. (PADA’s website,, even includes a page of helpful FAQs for beginning collectors.) But not all reputable galleries belong to PADA, so ask a trusted dealer to weigh in on a gallery’s reputation if you’re not sure about it, and visit Manhattan dealer Kathryn Markel’s excellent website,, for advice on spotting shady establishments.

Next, learn to read an artist bio. That will tell you whether an artist is just out of a BFA program or has a decades-long track record of solo exhibits in prestigious galleries and museums, a distinction that affects the value of the work.

And if you’re tempted to forego collecting and spend your savings on a minor home-remodel instead, be aware that, like nice kitchen cabinetry, the base price of a work of art is, at least in part, a function of the actual costs of production. For the artist, there are hours of labor, piles of rejected attempts and months of rent paid for studio space; and for the dealer, there’s the money and time invested in cultivating and marketing the artist’s work. (The gallery commission is typically 50 percent of the asking price.) The product of that R&D process is a luxury item, to be sure. But when all that hidden labor is considered—alongside the visible part, of course—a few thousand bucks looks like a pretty reasonable price for an object that will probably outlive you.