Stumbling Through the Magic Art Market

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One activity that really surprised me during my vacation to Texas a couple of weeks ago was the Museum of Fine Arts. It’s not that I don’t appreciate world-class artwork, but I was concerned that my kids would lose interest quickly and that the activity would be a way to kill a couple of hours at best.

The outcome exceeded my expectations, and we all found different pieces that we enjoyed for various reasons. My wife was eager to see a few of the big names the museum had to offer (Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso, etc.), my kids enjoyed the interactive, modern art exhibits, and I enjoyed the historical pieces, going back before 1000 B.C.

The experience piqued my interest in artwork in general, so I decided to join the MTG Art Market Facebook group. Boy was I unprepared for what lay within!

Some Background

First, I need to provide a little context. Despite being an avid fan of many of the game’s classic art pieces, I never seriously explored original Magic art ownership. I think there was a part of me that always valued having a card over a piece of art because I was a player of the game for so many years.

In fact, the only time I ever inquired about purchasing a piece of Magic art was in 2013, when I stumbled upon Douglas Shuler’s email address and contacted him directly about pieces he had for sale. We talked specifics for a couple of pieces, including Soldier of Fortune, Homarid Spawning Bed, and an un-set card that never saw print, Que Serra Serra.

Passing on Douglas’s offer to purchase these pieces was one of the worst Magic finance decisions I made in my career. While the pieces we discussed were small, the pricing was also very reasonable—I’m 100% confident if I had purchased any of the original artworks we discussed via emails, they would have looked amazing on my wall while also appreciating in value significantly.

Alas, I made the wrong decision and passed on the offers. Fast forwarding to 2023, I still own zero original artwork pieces from Magic.

Newfound Interest?

Now that I sold the majority of my collection (value-wise), I’ve shifted focus away from speculating/investing in Magic cards and towards other interests. Don’t get me wrong, I still buy and sell a card now and then, and I’ll continue to write about any interesting financial opportunities I am pursuing. The days of daily #MTGMail deliveries, however, are a thing of the past.

With a decreased interest in acquiring cards for my collection, where should I channel my focus? Original Magic art came to mind as a possibility once again, a decade after the last time I investigated it. Only this time I have a house with space designated for displaying my nerdy hobbies and I don’t play paper Magic much anymore. This could be the perfect opportunity to take a small portion of my Magic card proceeds to find a neat art piece to hang on my wall!

Unfortunately, I know virtually nothing about this market. As someone without original art knowledge, I had no clue how to proceed. I learned a bit by reading through Paul Comeau's high-level review on collecting Magic art, but I still had many unanswered questions.

Where to Start?

Serendipitously, I received an email from a modern-day Magic artist about a couple of auctions she was posting for some Magic-related sketches she had drawn. Her name is Zara Alfonso, and she’s created artwork for numerous recognizable cards, including Slip Out the Back, Shalai's Acolyte, and Tenacious Underdog.

She happened to create sketches for a couple of cards in March of the Machine, including Nahiri's Warcrafting and Kithkin Billyrider. “Perfect,” I thought to myself. “I can check out her auctions and maybe acquire an affordable, recent piece to hang on my wall.”

Well, it wasn’t quite so simple. It turns out Magic artwork buying is a highly contested market! Unlike in 2013, when I explored the possibility of acquiring artwork by emailing Douglas Shuler directly, one does not simply email an artist to inquire about available pieces for sale anymore. With the soaring popularity of owning original Magic art, the market has streamlined itself into a well-oiled machine.

Stumbling Block #1

For example, after I clicked on the email from Zara Alfonso, I was directed to her website. There on the site was a link to the auctions, which brought me to Facebook of all places! I was not expecting this redirect.

It turns out many artists auction their original work using this Facebook group. This makes sense when I think about it. The popularity of both Magic and Magic art has soared in recent years—I’m sure artists don’t want to deal with endless emails inquiring about their work. Auctioning art in a central location means a streamlined process and, hopefully, maximum value for the artists themselves.

Stumbling Block #2

I had to request permission to join this Facebook group, and my access was granted shortly after. Then a post was created welcoming all new members over the past few days—it was heartwarming to be welcomed by the group, as my Imposter Syndrome flared up. Everyone starts somewhere, though, so I hope I earn my stripes soon enough.

The next thing I had to learn about was the format of these artwork auctions. It’s not just willy-nilly bidding with the high bidder taking the prize like an eBay auction. Instead, there are a number of rules I had to familiarize myself with.

For example, here are the terms for Zara Alfonso’s sketch auctions:

Starting the auction now and it ends at 10:00 pm Eastern New York time on Sunday April 16th. We are looking for a $400.00 opening bid. Please bid in $25 minimum increases. Any bid made within the last 10 minutes of the end will cause the auction to extend 10 minutes from that bid time until there are no bids for a full 10 minutes. If I do not know you and you have no reference in the art market, you will be required to make a fully refundable 10% deposit (if you lose) on Pay Pal. This is for the safety of all bidders. Payment will be made directly to Zara by bank transfer, or Pay Pal friends or family, or Pay Pal purchase adding 4.1% for Canadian(5% for non Canadian). Shipping will depend on final price and where you are located on this planet compared to her in Western Canada. Pm me, Mark Aronowitz. Thanks, Mark and Zara Alfonso.

Choosing an end time, starting bid, and bid increments I completely understand. The bid sniping proofing with the 10-minute clause is something I can adjust to easily enough. Since I’ll have no references in the art market specifically (I’m not sure if I’m known enough outside of my little Old School / Magic finance sphere), I’m going to be expected to make a 10% deposit via PayPal. Then there are the fees, additional currency considerations, and shipping from Canada.

OK then, this is starting to get complicated. I’m certain there are ways to acquire original art without going through the Facebook route, but to a newcomer, it does feel like this is the marketplace for Magic art.

Stumbling Block #3

I’ve already overcome stumbling block 1 by finding the Facebook marketplace and gaining access to the group. Stumbling block 2 isn’t going to be hard to overcome and I don’t mind making a deposit and covering shipping. The third, and most challenging (for me) stumbling block, is the price tag.

Original artwork is expensive! These artists deserve every penny, so I don’t mean to shortchange them. I was just blown away by the demand in this market. My naivete inquires, with 1000s of new cards with unique art being released every year, wouldn’t there be ample supply for purchasing? Would not that ample supply lead to some affordable pieces for purchase?

Perhaps not. Looking at some of the recent auctions on the Facebook page, I’m seeing sketches bid up to nearly $1000. Colored paintings, such as this beautiful art for the Cloud of Fairies reprint by Iris Compiet, is bid up to $4000 so far!

Clearly, I have much yet to learn.

Wrapping It Up

The jury is still out on whether or not I’ll be purchasing any original Magic art pieces. I suspect there may be some smaller, less complete pieces that would sell for a price that falls more within my budget. At that point, however, is it worth my purchasing? I mean, hanging a tiny pencil sketch on my wall won’t exactly have the presence I’m interested in.

I have learned so much over my thus far brief foray into the world of original Magic art. The market is organized, streamlined, and highly competitive. This doesn’t mean I’m barred from participating, of course, but it does mean I need to decide if I’m serious about the pursuit. It would appear one does not luck into an inexpensive piece of artwork these days.

Perhaps with enough patience, I’ll stumble upon a piece that resonates with me, yet is affordable. Until that day occurs, however, I’ll continue to marvel at the beauty (and expense) of these beautiful pieces of art… just like I did at the art museum a couple of weeks ago.

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