Art Appraisal

Appraising Fine Art: Characteristics of Value

Appraising art requires recognizing and assessing relevant characteristics of value for a given work. Characteristics of value can include:

Name of the Artist: Who is the artist and what is his/her history or reputation? Do museums exhibit their work? Is their work represented and successfully marketed by galleries? Does the artist have an active collector base? If the answer to these three questions is yes, then the artist's work likely has significant market value.

The market for a given artist's work is created in several ways: (1.) Influential figures, such as 'pioneer' dealers and collectors take a financial risk on an emerging artist, and actively promote the artist's work to the rest of the world. Famous examples include: Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O'Keeffe; Peggy Guggenheim and Jackson Pollock; Gustave Caillebotte and the French Impressionists; (2.) Directors and curators of cultural institutions host exhibitions of an artist's work.

The degree to which a work of art can be assigned to a given artist also has a dramatic effect on market value. For example, auction catalogs often use the terms "by"; "attributed to"; "after"; "circle of"; "student of"; "follower of" and "in the manner of" to identify the degree to which an artwork is believed to be by the hand of a given artist. With each degree of distance from the named artist, market value drops. Catalogue raisonnes also may or may not exist for a given artist. When such a catalogue is available, it is an important tool for attribution and identification.

Position of an Artwork within an Artist's Oeuvre: How does a specific work fit into an artist's larger body of work? (1.) In terms of degree of completeness: a sketch on a cocktail napkin vs. a finished oil painting; (2.) In terms of period or style, student vs. mature career; (3.) In terms of subject matter: some subjects are more desirable than others (for example, a French pastoral landscape by Eanger Irving Couse vs. a Taos Indian by firelight by the same artist); and (4.) In terms of aesthetic merit (a subjective judgement). All of these criteria affect market value.

Provenance: Is the chain of ownership clearly documented? If there is a catalogue raisonne for the artist's work, is the subject piece listed? Has the artwork been included in any public exhibitions, or published in a book or article? Is the artwork from a well-known collection? A desirable provenance, or the history of ownership for a given artwork, enhances value.

Condition: Is the artwork currently in good (stable) condition? Has the artwork been subjected to a restoration treatment in the past that has caused damage or is irreversible? Previous treatment is sometimes only detectable by professional conservators. Some examples of conditions that negatively impact the market value of older paintings include: (1.) An oil painting that has been 'skinned' or over-cleaned (in the process of removing an old layer of varnish, a layer of oil paint has also been removed); (2.) A painting on canvas that has been poorly glued to a canvas support (glues are often animal-based and very difficult to remove, and the protein in them can also attract pests); and (3.) The application of shellac to the surface of an oil painting (an irreversible condition).

Appraising fine art requires careful evaluation of both objective and subjective criteria. Objective criteria include physical attributes of the work, such as medium, size and condition, and researching market data for comparable works through publicly available art auction records, and through requesting private sales data from knowledgeable galleries and dealers. Opinions of value can then be formed from the analysis of available market data.

Sometimes, however, market data is not widely available, and opinions of value must be made based on more generic and subjective criteria: to which general category of art does the subject work belong? What level has the artist's career reached, and what is the market value for works by other artists who have achieved comparable levels of market success? How successful (aesthetically) is the subject artwork? There may be no firm answers to these questions, and a reasonable opinion of value is ultimately built on both existing market data and logic based arguments regarding the type and quality of artwork.