Art Markets: The “Roadshow Effect” and art appraisals

Antiques Roadshow and its imitators have had a remarkable effect on the way people regard artwork and have prompted many to take stock of art accumulated in their own environment. Pieces long stored away in attics and closets are being retrieved and dusted off after any given episode of Roadshow with a hope that the old painting of grandmother’s might be worth something after all.

Often, the first step to enlightenment is the Internet, where information is readily accessible but not always accurate. Many have argued that the World Wide Web represents the “democratization” of knowledge. The other side of the Information Revolution is that much of what is accessible on the Web is wrong, incomplete or in need of interpretation. With works of art, the Internet has encouraged an increasing number of people to think of themselves as experts, capable of identifying valuable artworks and even assigning value to them.

3623 AT 2-20.jpg3621 AT 2-20.jpgArtwork like this is frequently thought to be of great value by an owner, until closer inspection of the back reveals it to be a reprint on canvas.

As a result, what has emerged in the last several years is a new segment of the art market whose members believe they own artwork of value. The truth often falls short of their expectation.

One common scenario for the first-time Internet art explorers begins when they see a painting featured on the Roadshow of exceptional value by a renowned artist long since deceased and discover that a similar picture hanging in their dining room is by the same artist. In many cases, it’s the same image. An Internet search of the artist leads to auction records and the belief they have something of great value.

The online auction record will indicate the artwork was executed as an oil on panel, but the novice viewer has no discernment in determining any distinction between an original piece of artwork and a reproduction. Or between an original painting and a copy painted by a lesser-known artist. As early as the beginning of the 20th century, paper reproductions from original paintings were being laid down on canvas, giving the casual impression that it is an original work of art.

One major premise in determining value begins in identifying the medium of the artwork presented. Original works on paper such as watercolor, pastel, charcoal and chalk as well as etchings, mezzotints, a variety of lithographs, silk screens and original woodblock prints and pen and ink drawings can often foil untrained viewers who have in their possession merely a reproduction and not an original work on paper.

As a fine art appraiser, I frequently see reproductions brought in for perusal and have to assign very little value to these pieces, which are also often faded due to years of exposure to light. Almost without exception, they tell me they saw this artist’s work appraised on the Antiques Roadshow and worth a considerable sum. Although I have seen disappointment after rendering my opinion of value, it is worth mentioning that when the viewer began their quest for knowledge about the piece they had, often they became interested in the artist and art in general and an avocation began.

“What’s it worth” has become the catchphrase of the Roadshow effect and a bellwether for the appraisal industry. The search for value shows no indications of slowing down. There are often no quick or easy answers when a determination of value is needed. The Roadshow effect suggests that a thorough and accurate assessment of a work of art can be made in an average time of five minutes or less. It is simply wrong to conclude a sound appraisal can be established so swiftly. In the industry, Roadshow-type verbal appraisals are strictly for entertainment value only. An appraisal of art in accordance with the appraisal industry’s uniform standards practice involves a process of examination, study and research which cannot be completed in five minutes.

Complicating matters further, a number of original artworks from many different eras are unsigned or signatures are indiscernible and artists unknown. A fair market value can be established for unattributed works, which can have reasonable value. It requires thorough research to arrive at a number for market value.

When an artwork is appraised and a value established, more often than not, an instant sale is not realized. Another common misconception is that a piece of art appraised will sell quickly and at the price it’s valued at. The road to the sale can be tenuous and takes an astute seller to determine the best procedure to sell the work at the best price. The standard rule of protocol assumes a willing seller and a willing buyer. From there, knowledge of the market is a profitable advantage. Unless you are fortunate to have a willing buyer at hand, expect to lose up to 40 percent in commission fees if you sell through a second party. The second party could be an auction house, art gallery or antique dealer, all of whom have an advantage lacked by the average person – a pool of potential willing buyers established through years of operating in the art market. Auction houses take a percentage of the sale price in a seller’s commission. This sum covers the marketing, shipping and handling, and in some cases restoration of the artwork if required.

Which brings us back to the Roadshow effect and its impact on the business of art. Thanks to the program, the general public has embraced an interest in art and its value. In many instances, they are unfamiliar with the artwork they possess and are not skilled in the commerce of art. It can be a tricky business if the sellers don’t understand what they are selling in a market where the buyers are likely to know more about the value of a piece than they are obligated to reveal.


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Mary Manion

About Mary Manion

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.