Art Markets: The Art of Appraisal

At a recent American Society of Appraisers luncheon, a colleague posed a hypothetical scenario. Various disciplines of appraisers were at this gathering, including real estate and business appraisers. At our table of eight sat the fine arts contingent.

I was eagerly awaiting my coffee as the colleague zealously presented his outline.

“You are appraising an estate,” he began, “with the parameter that anything valued at less than $1,000 should not be considered. In determining what is less than a thousand, do you have to appraise every piece of artwork?”

OK, I thought, no quiet small talk at this table. This required attention and my coffee was still on its way.

“And do you black-light everything?” he continued, delivering a challenge. One couldn’t imagine putting an ultraviolet light to the definitively recognizable repro of the Mona Lisa, another from our little group suggested, noting that it would add cost to the client in time and procedure. “Not necessary,” another replied with confidence, “some things you can easily rule out with a quick study.”

Our stylishly attired colleague leading this debate sat back in his seat and replied: “I would. I black-light everything.”

Everything. It was nothing less than a philosophical argument, an Absolutist pitted against several Relativists on the topic of appraisals.

Here you have two approaches to appraising art. In both, identifying what you have is essential to determining value. Methodologies may vary among appraisers but their task is the same: to examine, reference and resolve their assessments.

The Appraisals Standards Board of The Appraisal Foundation in Washington, D.C., defines an appraisal as “the act or process of developing an opinion of value.”

How does the appraiser arrive at an opinion of value?

Let’s revisit the estate with the $1,000 minimum value appraisal. A Currier & Ives picture is in the collection. Widely collected in the late 19th century, they continue to be reproduced today. An appraiser put it in the $1,000 camp because the image size was significant. The C & I editions had very precise measurements that later reproductions did not. An original print would be consistent with a specific measure.

The title on the margin, “New England Winter,” matched the original printing of that time period. Next, the appraiser must make a thorough examination of the support, in this case, the paper it is printed on. Age can be determined by the type and condition of the paper. There are several ways to confirm this, and our black-light advocate uses the UV light to determine age. A loupe is another, less intrusive tool that will magnify the inks to detect a 20th century dot pattern that would not exist in the original prints. A rag vellum paper is confirmed. No dot pattern exists.

Our print is identified as an original Currier & Ives, dated 1861, from an original painting by George H. Durris. Condition is the final step before a fair market value can be established. Reference to a Currier & Ives Price Guide places value of this print in mint condition at $6,000. This item has a few acid burns and slight fading. The print is in good condition, not mint. It is valued at $5,000.

Some pieces are easier to determine than others. Another picture from that collection proved a much more formidable task.

An oil painting on stretched canvas measuring 24 1/2 inches by 28 inches, dark and dirty with obvious age, hangs impressively in a heavy gilt frame. A studied glance of the interior Dutch scene suggests a well-painted work, an artist of talent. It is signed lower right “Josef Israels 1900”. Israels was well-known for his moody depictions of domestic life.

Rapid progress has been made, having determined the artist. However, this does mean certain identification. Condition and history must be ascertained to verify authenticity. A black light is used and indicates nothing: no in-painting or missing paint; maybe it’s never been cleaned. It appears old and in need of a cleaning. But there is no evidence of “reticulation” (separating of the paint), which can be apparent in a painting of this age. This may indicate something not quite right.

A look at the back reveals the support, the wooden stretcher bar, is not from 1900. It’s a 1960s-style stretcher bar. Apparently in the last 25 years, the painting was removed from its 106-year-old bar and re-stretched but not cleaned. It appears that it was re-stretched with the original tacks, or at least tacks from the late 1800s. Some restorers follow that rule of reusing original tacks if in good condition. But this painting had not been restored, just re-stretched.

This is where the provenance of the painting becomes important. Where has this painting been since 1900? The provenance in this case is unreliable. The present owner purchased the painting “for a considerable sum” in the 1980s from a gallery that did not specialize in antique art. Western Art from the 1970s and ’80s was its inventory. And when purchased, no history of the painting was disclosed. This is where the phrase “buyer beware” applies. When paying any sum — but especially a “considerable sum” — a provenance should be requested, especially because of the age of the painting. It’s been somewhere since 1900, but where? And did Israels paint it? It is well done and has a master’s authority throughout the work.

A quandry faces the appraiser. At this impasse, it cannot be established whether it is or is not painted by the listed Dutch painter.

The appraiser has a restorer remove the varnish in a small area to assess the paint. The varnish seems to be indelible. With further, careful application, a small amount of paint is lifting off of the canvas. The procedure is stopped. The restorer comments that this anomaly has never occurred in the many standard varnishes removed from oil paintings. It is noted, along with the previous discrepancies in this study.

The time has come for the appraiser to consult with an expert in this genre. Sotheby’s has a Josef Israels specialist in Europe. Rather than ship the artwork overseas, a color transparency and the appraiser’s notes are sent. If authenticity can be determined, the value placed would be up to $50,000.
It’s well worth the wait.

Mary P. Manion is associate director of Landmarks Gallery in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit, or call (414) 453-1620.