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A Conversation About Art Prices

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Vorthos MikeRob
BrianThomas

Mike: Hello known associates, we’re here to discuss art. Specifically, what is happening to the original Magic art market and some insight into it.

So, a few things to cover first.

Rob is an art collector, cosplayer, writer of flavor added a community project of adding flavor text to cards without them, and is in the games industry.

Rob: It's a fair rap.

Mike: Brian is a Vorthos art writer for TokyoMTG, frequent Magic art show worker, art collector, and Illuxcon art con worker, and legend card collector.. Fair?

Brian: That sounds a lot like me.

Thomas: I feel outclassed already

Mike: Thomas, Hobbes IRL name, is a Vorthos podcaster, commander enthusiast, Magic community organizer and gaming mental health advocate, plus professional. Sound good?

Thomas: Yes it does

Mike: And I’m Vorthos Mike. I like art and dogs, and people can google me to learn more.

Moving on to why we’re here - Magic art had a massive upswing in valuations both in offers and at auction in mid 2018, cooled in Q4, and back to stratospheric levels with two dragon planeswalkers hitting $30,000 and counting in auctions this week.

What are the factors, in order of importance why, have these have gone so high?

Rob: At the risk of being both flippant AND over-simplistic? Planeswalkers, planeswalkers, and planeswalkers. With angels and dragons as an asterisk.

Brian: Well 2018 spikes were also older cards and tournament played cards. Shahrazad and Arcbound Ravager (Kev Walker’s).

Mike: Good point Brian. Do $30k auctions not encourage others to put up old art too, though?

Shahrazad by Kaja Foglio, oil on illustration board, 7” x 5.5".

Sold for $72,000 on HA.com

Mike: So, why do planeswalkers command such a price spike?

Brian: I had initially thought it was the characters, especially with the Bolas and Ugin over $30k. But then I see the Noah Bradley piece that has both Bolas and Liliana in it at much less currently. It had an initial first day spike that surprised me but then I saw the Planeswalker Bolas at $30,000 on day 1...

Mike: So, planeswalkers in art...may also give a bump? As branded bumps?

Brian: I also know there is an artist’s affect but that seems less important than "really cool cards."

Mike: Artist as in who the artist is, ie. fame is less important than...cool? Good? cards?

Thomas: I would expect so, especially with who these characters are. I've been impressed by the art in War of the Spark but I didn't expect a ton of high prices this quick.

Tolsimir, Friend to Wolves by Ryan Pancoast

Oil on canvas, 24x36", sold for $6600

Brian: There was a spike of older cards afterward but I think Shahrazad was a market reaction to a seeing older card art for the first time. The following high priced items were sitting on eBay for months.

Thomas: I guess I had always thought artist was a bigger factor. Three pieces that will all be 5 figures before the set even releases.

Mike: Thomas, how do multiple 5 figure artworks feel to a player like yourself?

Thomas: I think artist does matter. John Avon and Chris Rahn were discussed earlier as artists, so when they do originals, those originals go for more than average.

Mike: Rob, you definitely know names of artists. Is there a tier list of "always hits at auction?" Or a well-known list of artists? Or ones like Rahn who always get good commissions.

Rob: Rahn I haven’t seen have a bad auction. Even the cover art to the book Children of the Nameless did really well and that was an unknown walker in an ebook. Beautifully painted but still a relatively unknown.

Children of the Nameless cover by Chris Rahn, sold for $6901 on eBay

Thomas: I'm excited for the artists. I like to see them being able to get a payday. I wish this would give them more leverage for being guests at events (like they felt at Grand Prix Vegas in 2015). I have never felt like I would own original art but I like to see high prices on sales.

Brian: I don’t really collect Magic paintings, mostly because most of the ones I would get (legendaries) are priced out of my reach.

Rob: To answer the earlier question about planeswalkers bumping prices, there are a couple of factors. First of all, planeswalkers are the face of the modern game. They're the characters the story revolves around. They're the characters people associate with. They're the characters people love enough to want to dress up and cosplay. So, people feel a real, emotional attachment to these characters, and they want to own art with those characters in it. Second, traditionally-painted planeswalkers are exceedingly rare. Most sets (War of the Spark excepted) will have at most three or four new planeswalkers), and - if art collectors are lucky - maybe one of those planeswalkers will be traditionally painted. Many of the most prolific planeswalker artists - I'm thinking about amazing artists like Magali Villenueve, Anna Steinbauer, and Eric Deschamps, who all have double-digit planeswalkers to their name - are digital artists only. So scarcity is a huge factor. For immensely-popular characters, like Chandra or Jace or Liliana, there just aren't a lot of traditional paintings to go around, compared to a huge number of fans who would like to own one. Third, planeswalker cards tend to be powerful. They're big, they're splashy, and they're played across formats. For many new players, a planeswalker was the first card they were ever excited about opening, the first card they really, really coveted. And card power level always has an impact on art prices - there are a lot of art collectors who specifically want to own powerful cards, because they want to own the cards they like playing with. And, finally, planeswalker paintings tend to be large. They're more vertical than your typical card art, and they usually show the character's full body, so that it can pop out of the card frame or be faded-out behind the text box. You add all those factors together - beloved characters, rare art, powerful cards, and big paintings - and you end up with a huge price premium for planeswalker art.

Thomas: Rob, that makes me think about the situation with The Eldest Reborn. It was art that I think is some of the best of Bolas artworks, and the original was almost like an underpainting, since she finished it digital. It was also nowhere near as huge as these pieces but went for over $7000.

Artist Jenn Ravenna and her ink illustration The Eldest Reborn

Brian: I think Jenn’s Eldest Reborn is another instance of the first Bolas original artwork in a while. That and the style really drove the price up.

Mike: I do think medium played a serious part. Also fame.

Thomas: Fame?

Rob: There are definitely a few artists who have deep-pocketed collectors, and who are always looking for new Magic art from those names. There are people who want to own a John Avon. There are people who want to own a Donato. There are people who want to own a Terese Nielsen. And the same applies to some of the artists who aren't currently working in the game. You'll see collectors posting, "I want to own a Guay. I want to own a Foglio." There are some cases where the artist matters more than the art.

Mike: She and her husband have a lot of followers. Same as Scott Fischer's Serra Angel - a crowd begets a crowd. That, and she’s also quite a skilled artist. That tends to be the more important thing but far from the only!

Brian: For pricing. Technical ability is pretty far down the list.

Mike: Oh is it now? Chris Rahn’s ability is secondary to the card choice?

Rob: But, again, the card still matters, and the art still matters, even for a "collected" artist. Chris Rahn's Bolas is going to sell for well over three times as much as his Vraska, because - as much as I love Vraska, and think she's one of the best characters in the game - Bolas is iconic. And the Donato Serra Angel - which I would argue was a full-stop masterpiece, not just a Magic masterpiece - sold for well less than a handful of more constructed-playable angels which hit the block last year.

Rob: So the artist definitely matters in establishing a floor - a John Avon land is going to sell, period - and in increasing the price premium for an iconic piece. But the card still matters. The art still matters. Donato still has several older Magic paintings for sale on his website. They're great paintings; they're just not cards people get excited about.

Mike: So then let's make a scale. What is the most important factor for a painting sale? Because if card is most important - what does that mean? What cards get people excited?

Rob: Going back to the larger trend, I think what we saw last year - and what we're continuing to see this year - is a separation of the very, very top pieces from the rest of the market. Even when the market as a whole is soft, like it was for much of the start of the year, there are deep-pocketed collectors out there waiting for premium pieces, and when those pieces surface - whether it's an old Constructed staple or a new planeswalker - that money activates, and the prices go through the roof. If you'll forgive the analogy, the one-percent of the collector community is not going to let the super-premium pieces go low, even when the market is soft for some absolutely beautiful paintings which maybe just aren't on the absolute best cards.

Mike: And that is what opened up the "please make < $1000 originals" thread. A long thread in the MTG Art Market Facebook group that was wildly popular.

Rob: Exactly.

Brian: How important is the character I think is the first. Case in point Bolas. An original Jace I imagine would go for beaucoup.

Rob: And that art is out there!

Brian: That’s a scale though. Roalesk just finished and he’s a new not really mentioned again character in the set and he went for $4500. Named characters matter.

Roalesk, Apex Hybrid by Svetlin Velinov

Acrylics on paper and 20.5” x 14.5”, sold for $4500

Rob: You can find amazing, amazing art for less than $1000.

Mike: So, storyline characters are now... valuable. Weren't they then too?

Rob: For new cards and new art, Constructed/Commander playability is the thing which I'd say matters most, with creature/planeswalker type as a close second like angels and dragons, again; and Bolas will outsell Vraska.

Brian: Depends on the legend. But the low end is definitely up especially for no information named characters.

Rob: For older art being resold from older cards, you have to add the nostalgia factor in. Card which players are nostalgic for command a huge premium. Cards from the very earliest sets command a huge premium. The Doug Shuler Serra Angel would sell for six-figures, minimum, because it is such a nostalgic, iconic card for so many people, versus the Donato Serra, which went for about $13,000, if memory serves.

Serra Angel by Donato Giancola

24" x 30" Oil on Panel, framed

Mike: Is commander a thing though for collectors? Don't they want a surefire hit?

Brian: Card playability I think is a close second. Including commander. But with new cards it’s hard to tell who gets commander famous. Most players have to play with a commander for a while to get invested.

Rob: A painting from an unplayable Ice Age card might sell for more than one of the really great Ravnica paintings which couldn't hit their auction reserves, just because of nostalgia.

Mike: I think that's right though. Commander staples need time to marinate.

Retouching on nostalgia, for Ice Age, it's the art though, more than the card, no? A reprinted Ice Age card wouldn't go for nearly as much I'd argue.

Brian: I don’t remember much hype around those besides the artist name drop of Staples and Alexander.

Thomas: I think for me it seems to be playability/character

Brian: It’s the nostalgia factor for sure. Also a lot of those older cards are done by artists that aren’t working as much. Rob brought up Foglio and Guay. Both artists not seen on the market frequently.

Thomas: I'm thinking for new art.

Because when old stuff pops up it does seem to be nostalgia/artist/classic card. I mean when Black Lotus technically hit the market the FB group just had a jaw drop even though I didn't think that piece was going to sell.

As more of a player and pretty casual, it's impressive to see. And it definitely has me now thinking hmmmmmmmm okay color studies or sketches are more realistic for me and also more my aesthetic.

Mike: Color studies are the best option! You see the artist thinking

Brian: Mike knows I’m a huge proponent of color studies and sketches. Great entry points and so awesome to see the process. Journey before destination.

I’d say during preview season it’s Character>Artist>Playability>Technical Application

Outside of preview season it’s Playability>Character>Artist>Age>Technical Application.

Rob: As kind of a parting thought, I think that, when people see art prices headed upward - especially when we see these sorts of headline-grabbing numbers for exceptional sales - there is a certain tendency to sort of instinctively bemoan that, to say, "well, here's another instance of something that I love about Magic where the price is headed out of reach." People sort of lump art into the same class as rising dual land prices. But I don't think that's the right attitude. Because, when we're talking about Magic art, we're talking about Magic artists. We're talking about the incredibly hard-working people who make these little pieces of cardboard we all love beautiful. And rising art prices means more money going into artists' pockets. And that's a thing which I don't think anyone can feel bad about, if they stop to think about it. We love the artists; we want them to be paid! And even though that means that there are paintings which I might like to own that I'm never going to be able to own, because someone else is going to pay more for them, that doesn't make me sad - it makes me happy, because it means that my favorite artists - who are some of my favorite people - are going to be doing well.

Mike: Rob, kudos. That is exactly the right attitude. And in doing so, artists then often make thumbnails, pencil sketches, color sketches, color studies, to have more pieces to sell, making art more accessible, and AGAIN it helps them more too!

Brian: Great attitude Rob!

Thomas: I know I'm getting worried that sketches are going to become more inaccessible as an entry point but I think that's the nature of the market

Mike: I do believe that is happening, and encouraging folks like Filip Burburan to make multiples and alternates

Sketches of Patchwork Gnomes by Filip Burburan

Pencil on paper, selling for $60-370

Brian: As more artists are starting to think about working in traditional mediums to get in on this market, I hope they don’t get discouraged by seeing their stuff not do so as well out of the gate as some others.

Mike: I worry that artists not in Magic's orbit will struggle to start, as Brian suggested, but it just takes one auction to get your feet under you, such that future ones skyrocket, and sketches can be plentiful for everyone.

Thanks everyone for the time today!

You can find Brian on Twitter @propsofprophecy, Rob on Twitter @BibliovoreOrc and Thomas at @HobbesQ. Let’s hope we can talk art again soon. And until then, make sure you’re using the Cool Stuff Inc. Deck-builder tool to choose your favorite art in building a deck.

-Vorthos Mike