Vol. 1, No. 5, March / April 1996
What does it mean to an Appraisal?
by Randolph E. Osman
“Just as appraisers don’t determine values, but rather estimate the value they observe in the market; they also don’t determine what a property is, but rather reflect how the knowledgeable market recognizes and treats it.”
The Appraisal of Personal Property, American Society of Appraisers, Washington, D.C., 1994
Art appraisers are often asked to appraise art objects and antiques with no guarantee of the item’s authenticity. In some cases the owner of an object believes he knows what he owns, in other cases he hopes the appraiser can help identify the object. In a few rare cases, the owner may hope to have something appraised as authentic when in fact he knows it is a fake or forgery. Authentication, the process of accurately identifying on object, is important because of its potential impact on the value of the work of art or antique being appraised.
THE PROCESS AND SIGNIFICANCE OF AUTHENTICATION
.......Part of an appraiser’s concern with authenticity, and the reason authenticity affects value, is because an authentic work of art is “authorized” in a way that a fake or forgery is not. It is authorized by its maker, and that authorization gives the work of art validity - and value. It has been said that if a fake is so good that it fools the experts, why then isn’t it valued as highly as the authentic original. The answer is because the fake is not “authorized.” No matter how deceptive a fake $100 bill is, it does not carry the authority of the U.S. Department of the Treasury to exchange it for an equal amount of bullion. No matter how carefully a tourist replica of a tribal ceremonial object is crafted, it is not authorized by a history of use in a ritual ceremony. An authentic work possesses an intangible history, a truth. That history and authorization by the artist is part of what contributes to the value of the object.
.......Technically, the only person who can authenticate a work of art is the person who created it. The artist is, however, seldom alive or available to assist an appraiser. According to the American Society of Appraisers, appraisers do perform the function of authentication implicitly simply by virtue of appraising personal property. But appraisers are not per se authenticators. Authenticators, often called art experts, are scholars with extensive experience. These experts usually spend their professional lives working in narrow areas of study such as the prints or oil paintings of a particular artist.
.......When an art appraiser has reason to question the correct identity of something he is appraising, he often calls on an expert in the field to authenticate the object. By doing so, the appraiser is employing “due diligence” in valuing an object. “Due Diligence” usually translates into hard work, research, a bit of detective work, and ultimately it means honesty and therefore complete disclosure. The appraiser’s responsibility in this process is to alert the client to the problem, provide advice regarding experts, record and interpret the information obtained from experts and other sources, and, finally, to determine the object’s probable market value.
THE IMPORTANCE OF “ADEQUATE IDENTIFICATION”
.......The question of authenticity really hinges on “adequate identification” as stipulated by the Appraisal Standards Board of the Appraisal Foundation in Washington, D.C., which regulates the appraisal profession. One of the best means of establishing adequate identification is to have clearly documented provenance for the work of art. Provenance is a history of ownership for the piece, ideally from the time it left the artist’s studio to the time it entered the subject collection. Recording and interpreting the history of ownership, exhibition and past research done on a work of art is part of the appraiser’s responsibility in reaching a value conclusion. Appraisal is not guess work. It is the result of assembling hard facts and then interpreting them.
.......Especially interesting is the identification of works where the provenance of the work is entirely a mystery. For example, a painting was purchased at a garage sale in southern California in the 1970s. The owner had no idea what it was, but it appealed to her taste for quaint and somewhat “primitive” art. Although the piece’s provenance was dubious, upon casual inspection it appeared to be an authentic early Renaissance panel painting, that was indeed rare and valuable.
.......To discover how rare and how valuable, photographs were taken and enlarged, the painting’s surface was examined under ultra-violet light, accurate measurements were taken and time spent in libraries. Ultimately, Italian Renaissance painting experts were contacted, as were two major auction houses to determine their level of interest and to find out if they would be willing to contact their own retained experts for opinions of age, authenticity and value. Photographs were sent to IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) in New York, which monitors stolen art and known forgeries. For questions on iconography, the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, which has a large archive of photographs of art works, was contacted.
.......As a result of this research it was determined that the painting was probably cut from a cassone, the traditional Italian marriage chest. This accounts for two mysteries, the curiously thick wood panel and the subject matter, which showed a nun and a group of ladies performing a ceremony involving a man on horseback and a child, with a procession of horsemen winding into the distance. The scene fit none of the well-known iconographic types. The identity of the nun and the others failed to correspond to any known representations of saints that one would expect to find on an altar frontal, but a marriage chest might depict some very local event.
.......The stylistic analysis revealed that the painting was Italian, probably mid-15th century, attributable to the general artistic circle of Paolo Uccello (1396/7-1475) and probably Florentine. Research indicated that the painting was authentic, had been restored, was probably created between 1550 and 1580 within a particular artistic circle.
.......With this information an appraiser, using computerized databases, library books, and gallery and auction records, can determine comparable sale values in various markets. From there the variables of size, condition, provenance, aesthetic quality and subject matter are considered in generating a justifiable value conclusion.
THE APPRAISER’S ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY
.......In summary, how do appraisers determine exactly what they are appraising? For appraisers who are experts in a given medium and period, this may involve authentication, perhaps as an independent consulting function. For an appraiser who is not an expert in the specific field, correct identification should involve collaborating with someone who is. In such a situation the appraiser benefits from the studies and opinions of experts, evaluates opinions himself and perhaps has tests performed to arrive at a value conclusion for the object being appraised.
.......The quick answer to the question of whether an art appraiser is responsible for determining “authenticity” is a qualified “yes.” As a function of the requirement of “accurate identification” and of the legal principle of “due diligence,” along with professional ethics involving a “standard of care,” the appraiser must exercise reasonable care and produce substantial evidence to justify the value conclusion.
.......Clearly, many experts, as well as collectors, curators, appraisers and scholars have been fooled in the past. There are many reasons why works of art are misrepresented or misunderstood. Sometimes malicious fraud is involved, and sometimes it is simply a matter of mistaken identity. Regardless, more appraisers will include a short disclaimer stating that they cannot assume responsibility for erroneous information supplied by others. Such a caveat is useful, but may not protect either the client or the appraiser in the case of gross negligence in ascertaining the correct identity of the object being appraised.
.......In any event, the best policy - for the appraiser as well as the client - is that of complete disclosure. One nationally prominent appraiser and a regular adviser and expert witness for the IRS, the U.S. Customs and major insurance companies says with regard to disclosure, “...tell them everything you know and tell them everything you don’t know.” Inevitably there will be situations when the authenticity of a piece will be disputable. In such cases the appraiser must use “due diligence” and completely disclose his procedures, keep accurate records, build a convincing case for his conclusion and hope he is right.
.......Many collectors wonder when and if they should have artwork authenticated. For older works of art, where the provenance is not entirely clear, and where the dollar value may be high, it is advisable to have an authentication on record. To achieve this, the best thing a collector can do is to engage the appraiser with the best credentials, the least potential conflict of interest and the best client referrals. Although art appraisers are not licensed, the best are certified and tested by several appraisal associations. Membership in such an organization, while it cannot guarantee an appraiser won’t make a mistake, does guarantee that the appraiser knows the proper procedures, has gone through peer review and adheres to strict ethical guidelines.
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