Art Markets: Art values can be an illusion

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It was a snowy New Year’s Eve day, and the appraisers were making a house call. The client was a woman with a family heirloom, a piece of cut and painted paper silhouette art from a genre known by its German name, scherenschnitte. Her story ran like this: Her mother brought the paper art to the U.S. from Austria in the 1950s and had the piece appraised many years ago by a Boston dealer, at a value of $16,000.

She fervently believed her story but, alas, the family lore was obviously wrong. The piece, while nice work, had been framed in the 1960s before archival materials were available. The scherenschnitte had been glued down to a matt board, and acid from the board migrated over the decades onto the artwork. The paper was pocked by breaks and foxing.

Moreover, it was impossible to find auction records higher than $2,000 for a comparable scherenschnitte in good condition. The client was indignant when the appraisers determined its value was only $400.

Witness the growing problem in the art market of customer over-expectation, a trend fanned by the popularity of “Antiques Roadshow,” aided by ill-informed amateur Web sites and often abetted by family legends that just seem to sound better with each passing generation.

In the current economic climate, people are re-evaluating their finances, taking inventory of their personal property, and in some cases, downsizing the manor. The demand for appraisals has multiplied exponentially and, like a kind of “cross your fingers” lottery logic, people hope it’s the winning ticket to prosperity.

The problem is that unlike investing in gold, the value of art can be illusory. Also, the authenticity of gold can easily be established. With art, what looks like the real thing can, upon evaluation, turn into mere fool’s gold. And the appraiser is also faced with a disadvantage not endured by dealers in gold. The value of precious metal is measured by the ounce and determined by the world market. The value of art work will always be more subjective.

Antiques Roadshow,” the ever-popular appraisal program on PBS, has become the bellwether for appraisal events that have sprung up across the country in recent years. Patterned after the “Roadshow’s” presentation, appraisal affairs feature qualified appraisers from numerous disciplines who are brought together for a day to assess and provide a quick verbal value to whatever antique is put in front of them. My experience as a fine art appraiser at these events indicates all that glitters is not gold.

At the recent appraisal fair presented by Milwaukee Public Television, the annual event brought in 1,800 advance ticket sales and sold out weeks before the October date. I was among the team of 38 appraisers who volunteered their knowledge and time for the 10-hour event. In my line, the majority of ticket holders had researched their artwork beforehand on the Internet and told me what they believed to be the value of their work as I was examining their piece. Often, what they thought they had  was not quite what they actually had. The most popular misconception is the difference between original works of art and their deceptive imitators: a reproduction, a copy or a “pretender” — a paper print on canvas, which can look like a painting to the amateur but holds little value to its original counterpart.

Picasso reproductions are the frequent item of disappointment brought in by people who gather their information randomly from the Internet. Last month, two Picasso-hopefuls were brought to my table: one a faded reproduction from the ’70s, and the other a rather cheap-looking image of a rooster that had been transferred onto a plastic plaque with a wall hook attached on the back. I had a bit of a struggle trying to set the record straight about its value. The client insisted that someone at a museum had told him it was valuable. Maintaining levity at such moments is a vital part of the assignment.

Another common misunderstanding comes in determining value with an artwork that has prospective worth. An oil painting, for example, may be less desirable if it is in poor condition, has a questionable provenance or aesthetically is not good quality work, or the market for that artist might be low. People seldom realize the parameters involved in the evaluation process.

A watercolor (pictured above) I encountered recently comes to mind as an example of a listed artist with a strong sale history ($20,000 to $50,000 at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, among other houses) but currently is generating no interest in consignment at auction houses. The local collector acquired the well-rendered, mixed-media floral several years ago.

He researched the French artist, Andre Dunoyer de Segonzac (1884-1974), and eventually had it authenticated by a specialist who determined the watercolor was in excellent condition, well executed and consistent with other works by the same artist that sold around $50,000 at auction. Several years had passed, and the client decided to place it at auction.

Contacting the appropriate specialist at several auction houses within a six-week period culminated in the finding that currently, the artist’s work is of “little interest” in the market. As these inquiries were being made, Christie’s, one of the houses contacted for the consignment, had several De Segonzac watercolors up for auction. Their Sept. 21 New York sale brought in $4,200 (hammer) for a watercolor landscape; a week later in Paris, Christie’s sale of a floral watercolor sold for $3,780 (hammer).

In November 2009, a De Segonzac watercolor similar in composition and size as our client’s, sold at Christie’s (New York) for $41,500 (hammer). Within the following year, auction records indicate 43 watercolors by De Segonzac appeared at auction. The 21 lots that sold ranged in price from $257 to $14,141 (hammer). Nineteen lots did not sell, and two sales were not communicated.

Because the art market fluctuates, determining value involves a skillful process that includes ongoing research and a good eye on market sales. If Christie’s takes a pass, keep it in your portfolio. The market may possibly change. ?

Mary Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, Wis. A columnist for Antique Trader since 2006, Manion is a member of the New England Appraisers Association.


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