People frequently call me to ask if I will appraise their artwork- it is the start of a long and involved conversation which starts with "I don't do appraisals." That being said I try to help people who call with this question.
The first thing I try to ascertain is if the art is an original or a reproduction. Being a reproduction does not necessarily mean that something is valueless. When possible I like to see the artwork to determine this.
- If it is done by a famous artist is it in the correct medium (oil, etching, watercolor)? I have seen a number of Van Goghs in the gallery but they turn out to be reproductions- determined by the fact that they are printed instead of painted.
- Is it a true artprint process (intaglio, lithograph, monoprint) rather than a reproduction method? By looking at a print through a magnifying glass you can determine if it is a reproduction if the ink is applied in dots- a machine process. You should also see the embossed edge of the plate at the outer perimeter of a real print.
- Do the brush strokes match what is painted? Famous art is being reproduced on canvas and "enhanced" with brushstrokes.
- If the piece has age to it, flip it over and look at the back. The wooden stretcher bars of a painting will show oxidation (turned dark brown) to indicate age. All of the components should look about the same age.
- Is there a signature? Most artwork has little value without a signature. Check the back too! If it is quite dirty or the varnish has discolored the signature could be hidden.
The second thing I try to ascertain is if you want the appraisal so that artwork can be insured, valued for an estate or if you are simply curious about its worth. For legal or insurance purposes you will need an appraisal done by an appraiser. The value will need to backed up with auction records of comparable works by the same artist. Appraisers are liable for their appraisals so they research thoroughly. They have also gone through years of training or apprenticeship. For this reason they need to charge for their services. In return you will receive the information backing up their estimation of worth on the art. The appraisal will need to be written on their letterhead. They should also be willing to share their credentials. If you are merely curious, you probably don't want to pay for an appraisal and should skip to the paragraph on "looking on the internet." If you have a contemporary piece the gallery where it was purchased should be willing to provide updated valuations on request.
Value is determined by what an artist's work fetches on the secondary market- this means there must be records of the work being sold at auction. Your painting by great grandpa may have great sentimental value and could potentially fetch a decent price on the open market, but it may have no appraisal value because the artist has never sold at public auction. People often ask what a piece is worth before opting for conservation work. They feel that if the painting is only worth $200 but the conservation work will cost $300 that they shouldn't move forward. My feeling is if you like the artwork and hope to pass it on to future generations then conservation is worth while. If you compare the costs of conservation to the cost of a new piece of art it REALLY makes sense.
So how do you determine if the artist has any art world recognition? The first place to look for information on an artist is the internet. A good site is artnet.com. You can at least find out if there are any auction records for your artist. You will need to pay a fee if you want to look at the records, but you may buy a limited number of inquires for about $20. Be careful- it is addicting! Another great resource is Ebay. This will at least give you a sense of what the going prices are if there are any listings. Compare works of the same medium, similar subject matter and similar condition to get the most accurate estimate of value. If the artist has a more local or regional fame, the state or town Historical Society is another great resource.
If you do need an appraiser I am happy to recommend some names of people that I have worked with. Be clear on what you are receiving from them- is it a replacement value or fair market value? Replacement values are much higher. They reflect the cost of going out and purchasing another piece of art similar to the one you currently have. A fair market value reflects what you might receive if you took your art to a dealer to be sold. I recommend that a copy of this appraisal be kept on the back of the artwork so that it is never separated from it.