As far as a painting’s hammer price is concerned, other, less noble considerations matter a great deal more than the picture’s intrinsic quality
Feline frenzy: Carl Kahler, My Wife's Lovers (1891)
Determining the market value of a picture can be a surprisingly heartless experience. There before you stands a fine portrait by a great artist, whose energy and creative genius you see emblazoned on the canvas with brushstrokes as fresh as the day they were painted. Yet you must judge the work not by its painterly strengths, but by the sum of its component parts.HT: Bendor Grosvenor's Art History News
Was the sitter important? Who owned her? Is she pretty? You mentally reduce the picture’s value as you realise that it is not the famous royal mistress the owner believes it to be, merely some dowdy matriarch wrongly named Nell Gwyn by a descendant tired of not having anyone famous on his staircase. The traditional identification is incorrect, you gently inform the expectant owner, and yes, while the portrait is indeed by Anthony van Dyck, for whom the record price at auction is £8.3m (a late self-portrait, sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 2012), this example, although it may be as dexterously painted as the record-holding picture, is worth “only” £200,000.
In other words, the value of an Old Master can have frustratingly little to do with how good it is. Instead, its value is determined by a range of attributes that govern desirability among buyers. You may find it puzzling that, broadly speaking, we are unable to judge art by its intrinsic quality, and instead rely on indicators such as attractiveness. But it really does matter if a portrait’s sitter is pretty or not—if only because the majority of art collectors are, and always have been, men. Welcome to the art market.
"Someone just paid $826,000 for a giant painting of cats"