The success or failure of artwork at an auction, or the art market more generally, is difficult to predict. There is a number of factors that impact the perceived value of the object: the artist and his position in the art world or art history, the size of the artwork, its medium, signature, and date, and subject matter, just to name a few. On top of that, the market has its favourite colours. Indeed, the colours artists use in their works, their hues and combinations were determined to have an influence of one’s willingness to buy or invest in artwork and on the initial pricing of it.
The dessert: harmony in red, 1908
180 cm × 220 cm
A 2019 study determined that blue and red are the most ‘valuable’ colours.1 Auction prices for (non-figurative) works where blue or red colour is dominant are increased by 10.63% and 4.20%, respectively, and generate 18.57% and 17.28% higher bids. (The basic colour hierarchy discovered in the study has blue and red on top, followed by green and purple, with orange and yellow at the bottom). These definitive colour preferences were backed in the same study by the observation that blue and red elicited the strongest emotions (pleasurearousal and willingness to pay) in the participants of the experiment.
Right-hand panel of the Wilton Dyptich, c. 1395–1399
Created for King Richard II of England
53 x 37 cm
Untitled (Red on Red), 1969
Sotheby’s Sale price: 8,237,000 USD , (16 May 2019)
98.4 x 63.5 cm
It is extremely tempting to look for a throughline of the favour for these colours in art history. The colour blue was always highly valued in Western art. Before the invention of chemical dyes and colours, the only way to achieve a deep, saturated blue was to use lapis lazuli, the most expensive pigment historically, which had to be imported from present-day Afghanistan. Thus, blue, on par with gold, was seen as precious enough to use in representations of Heaven. Even though blue pigment was more easily accessible in the Middle East and therefore did not possess the same connotations of rarity, the colour also represents the purity of the soul in Islamic visual tradition.
On the other hand, red is traditionally and historically a colour of passion and intense emotion, of opulence, love or anger; it is universally associated with blood and fire. Red was also found effective at eliciting emotions and making people want to own a particular piece of work.
It is interesting to contemplate our current preference for blue and red as a result of subconscious and almost genetic cultural conditioning that stretches back for centuries, whereby even after synthetic colours became universally accessible, artists and buyers still show high regard for the same colours.
IKB 191, 1962
One of a number of works Klein painted with International Klein Blue
The impact of colour on the estimated and achieved prices of artworks is an interesting phenomenon that can help you understand the subtler inner workings of the art world that proves how big of an impact emotions have on the market. However, Theodore & C. would like to caution that the presence or absence of particular colours in an artwork should not serve as a sole or primary factor when making an investment decision. The work’s artist, quality, provenance and, as Sotheby’s Director and Senior Paintings Specialist, Philip Hook put it, ‘wallpower’ of the work usually has a larger impact on its monetary value.
243 x 543 cm
1 Ma, Xiaoyin and Noussair, Charles N. and Renneboog, Luc, Colors, Emotions, and the Auction Value of Paintings (February 21, 2019)
Center Discussion Paper Series No. 2019-006
Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3339184