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The Complete Guide to Buying and Collecting Video Game Art

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The Complete Guide to Buying and Collecting Video Game Art

Part 2. What's It Worth? Value Development In Video Game Art.

Arjan Terpstra

16 Apr 2020 ⋅ 9 min read

This is part two in a larger series of articles on Video Game Art Collecting. In this series we will cover:In Part 1 we explored some of the reasons to collect video game art. We also looked into interesting parallels we see in other pop cultural fields where collecting recently took off - vintage movie posters, comic books and pop culture statues. All have seen the rise of a sizable collectors' market, which begs the question: will video game art see the same kind of development? Is video game art something worth investing in? And how do you judge value, when the object of collecting is something as omnipresent as a video game?


The value of art

What is the proper price for a piece of art? This age-old question is as true for a Van Gogh as it is for a concept art print of Dishonored 2. Both are material expressions of ideas and moods, displayed on a two-dimensional canvas, and sold in exchange for money. How much? If you're familiar with Van Gogh's biography, you know selling his paintings didn't exactly stuff his pockets. And yet, 130-odd years after his death, even his lesser work is valued at millions of dollars. How come?
Playing Cards

And what about Dishonored 2 imagery? Could an evocative, worker-class image like Playing Cards by Cedric Peyravernay hit the same kind of price in 130 years? Or what about 25 years from now? Much will depend on how we look back on video games, on the artists involved in the visualization of Dishonored and on early 21st Century art in general. Van Gogh rose to fame well after his death, after the art world recognized his big contribution to modern (post-impressionist) art. The same could happen to video game art. The fabulous work on Dishonored 2, by French studio Arkane, could be a famous example of what was possible in video game concept art in the late 2010's.

Or it could not. There's honestly no telling which work of art will 'make it', as we cannot predict future tastes. But what we do know at Cook and Becker, is some art stands a better chance of rising to prominence than others. In every art market, there's a set of parameters that tell you which art has value, and which has not. Does this predict price hikes for the art you own? No, it does not. But it does predict if your art object stands a fighting chance when it comes to value creation. Let's break it down for 'pop culture art' specifically.


I: Scarcity

The less there is of something that people want, the higher the value. Video game art and collectibles are no different from stamps in this respect: your 1985 Super Mario Bros. cartridge is only worth something if all the other cartridges of that mass-produced series are gone. Or it could be your copy is a notably rare one from a Nintendo test launch, like the one sold for a whopping $100,150 at auction in 2019. The same holds true for video game art produced in series. A limited run of giclee prints, like we offer on this website, is limited for a reason. Knowing a certain piece was originally produced in a low-number series gives it an intrinsic value lacking in a mass-produced posters or 'lithos' showing the exact same image.
That'll be $100,105 please.
II: Material quality

Every collector is aware of the value of objects in 'mint condition', and rightly so. Yet there's much more to quality than the material condition alone. It is also manifested in the way the object is produced, the materials that were used in the production, and how involved the original makers were in the process of producing the object. A mint condition Fortnite poster, bought at 15 USD, will not guarantee you future value, as it will most likely be not-so scarce, and produced on a budget. Reproduction techniques (of digital imagery) have made quantum leaps in terms of quality in the last decades, but the use of cheap materials, cheap inks and sub-standard mounts will always tell over time. It is exceptionally rare that a mass produced item that can be purchased for little money will ever become a priced collectible. In fact, only the collectibles/antiques/art prints/cars etc. that were already premium items when they first came out, are likely to appreciate in value.

It is for these kinds of insights it's worth acquainting yourself with the production process behind the art you're after. A 'Rembrandt etching', to give you a classic example, comes in many forms. There's the mass-produced tourist shop variety - an offset print of a photographic image of an original etching. Then there's the up-market reproductions: the same photo printed en masse, but with a little more attention to paper, inks and mounts -think cheap litho's. Next, you enter the realm of 'original etchings' by the 'master himself' - only there's more than one etching available, and the quality varies widely. Which of course is a hallmark of the etchings technique. The metal plate used to reproduce the image wears with each use, leading to reproductions of lesser and lesser quality as time progresses. Yes, Rembrandt's original plate was used for your print, but dozens of print runs will have altered the original image to a large extent. By that time, the plate will have moved from studio to studio, with Rembrandt as a person completely out of the picture by the time the image on the plate gave out. Needless to say the later prints will likely sell for much less than prints from the first couple of runs.
Joseph and Potifar's Wife by Rembra
III: Artist involvement

That the quality of art and an artist's renown are key factors in determining value is obvious. Yet those are also the hardest to quantify, especially over time. A great artist today may be forgotten tomorrow, and vice versa. Some are recognized during their lifetimes, others long after they passed on. Hayao Miyazaki, Stan Lee, Jean Giraud, Yoshitaka Amano and H.R. Giger for example were seen as exceptional (albeit sometimes only after decades) artists in their own times. Vincent van Gogh notoriously was not.

A complicating factor in pop culture is determining the exact involvement of an artist in a certain artwork. Video games are born from collaboration between many people, so in most cases there's no one 'author' of an art style or iconic game character. Instead, studio names fill the credit lines. This may seem off-putting, especially if you're used to collecting in other art fields. But it's totally ok, because it tells you of the official involvement of the studio in creating the art on sale. This means some kind of selection process took place before the art was released, involving discussions between members of the larger team as to how to represent their game in the best light. Which is nothing new to collectible art. A contemporary artist like Damien Hirst has the same studio setup, with teams making the art, and Hirst signing off the art as a final quality control check.

How is this relevant? Simple: official art trumps non-official art at any auction or resale. This is the reason why the classical art world puts so much time, money and energy in establishing a paintings' progeny and authenticity. And this is also the reason we at Cook and Becker value our relationship with studios above anything else: true value creation in video game art starts with a studio saying yes to the publication of game art outside of the games themselves, and selecting the finest images to convey their artistic intentions in the best possible manner.
Yes, just like a single artist would.


IV: The X-factor

The last parameter we have for you is also the least tangible. The emotional appeal of an image will make or break its chances on the art and collectible market. This should make it one of the easier parameters to take into account when buying art, but it isn't. People's tastes alter over time, fashion trends change, art appreciation changes. Meaning it's impossible to predict what people want on their walls in ten, twenty, thirty years' time.

Still, the emotional appeal of game art is highly relevant to collectors. Intangible or not, today's popularity is perhaps the only reliable indicator of future success for art. But only if you see a game's 'popularity' not as 'numbers of players', but as the emotional attachment of people to certain titles, art styles et cetera. At Cook and Becker's we have seen 'big' games sell in surprisingly small numbers of prints, and 'small' games do incredibly well. Okami prints are a case in point. As a video game series, Okami wasn't a big hit, only selling in respectable numbers over many, many years. Yet as a game with a devoted fan base, Okami prints (and merchandise in general) do incredibly well. The reason: the emotional attachment of the fans is very high, to the point most prints in our Okami fine art print collection were gone in days.
Following the Trail - Okami
The Golden Rule

In the end, collecting art is as much about emotion and gut feeling as it is about reasoning about material conditions and scarcity. It helps to check Ebay from time to time for the same items. Stuff that's always on offer, exists in large numbers and is less likely to grow in value. On the emotional side, it is certainly worth your time to look into the status of a video game. A small but devoted fanbase discussing 'their' game at length is more likely to buy a scarce item off of you for a good price than more generic players of large games do. And then again: who's to know? As the wise man said: the golden rule is there are no golden rules, so we may be wrong about all of the above - and isn't that just the charm of things?

In the next episode of this series, we will take a deep dive into the material properties of video game art. We talk shop about our use of archival inks, dibond paper, printing on metal, and much, much more.

Stay tuned!

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