Kaitlin Binkley, Marketing Coordinator
Imagine – You were crawling through Grandma’s attic this weekend, trying to chase out the squirrels, when you came across a large square object covered by a sheet. Knowing ghosts don’t normally have corners, you pull the sheet away to reveal a large painting in an ornate gilt frame. Maybe it’s a landscape, maybe an old portrait. Whatever it depicts, you like it enough to save it from the squirrels and pull it out of the attic. Grandma doesn’t recall where the painting came from but asks you to find out more about it. It’s signed in the corner and when you put that name into a search engine it comes up with a famous artist! Their paintings are rare, valuable, and you might have one right there in front of you!
Before you get your hopes up too high, you need to get the painting appraised by a licensed appraiser. The museum gets many of these stories sent to us, sometimes weekly! While we are very excited for these finds, as a 501(c)3 non-profit, we are not allowed to evaluate artworks. An independent appraiser or appraisal company is needed to determine the value of the work, and you might need to contact an authenticator before the appraiser to make sure the work you’ve found is not a forgery or student copy.
How does an appraiser determine the value of a work? The Art Dealers Association of America suggests that authenticity, quality, rarity, condition, provenance, and value all add up to determine the value of a work. Collectors, however, can attribute an emotional connection to add a subjective value to a piece of art, so while they can be very knowledgeable about an artist’s work they are not the unbiased source needed for appraising the work. The four main types of appraisal are fair market value, replacement value, market value, or liquidation value and there are many different types of appraisers who specialize in their chosen subjects. If the painting you found is a landscape, you would look for art appraisers who work with those types of works over an appraiser who works in sculpture or pop art. You can get more specific with the art appraisers, as some specialize in a single artist’s work or a certain time period, however, with specificity comes cost.
When people approach the museum for help, they are sometimes taken aback that the organizations we direct them to require a fee. As explained above, there are many factors that go in to determining an appraisal and the appraisers time and effort, not to mention skill and knowledge, all contribute to costs. While it would be wonderful if we could scan something in or take a picture and a computer would tell us how much it’s worth, there is no such program. Depending on the age of the work and the provenance (or chain of custody), the work might not have much digitally documented history and an appraiser will need to dig through old paper files. Like a genealogist combing through census records following clues back through time, this lengthy process often requires a lot of travel to find the correct documentation. Art appraisers can charge from $25 to over $300 an hour depending on their skill and expertise. This is another reason to choose an appraiser carefully, because if someone has specialized they might be able to tell you about your painting in a day, while a general appraiser might take weeks, but you pay for their skill.
Back to Grandma’s painting – you can use the Internet to research what you’ve found without the need for an appraiser, but only to a certain point. Determine the general style of the painting, the age if it is dated, and the artist if it is signed. If your general search with the artists name doesn’t come up with many results, this doesn’t mean what you have isn’t worth anything! Do you like the piece? Since it’s been in your family, would you like it to remain in the family? You should ask yourself these questions before you toss it out to the curb. If your search brings up a lot of other paintings with large values attached, then you might want to find an art appraiser to help you! So head over to Grandma’s this weekend, help her out by cleaning out the attic and see what treasures you might find hidden away! Good luck!