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 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? An answer of yes increases likely market value.

The market for a given artist's work may be 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; and (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. A catalogue raisonne also may or may not exist for a given artist. When a catalogue raisonne 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, is the subject piece a sketch on a cocktail napkin or a finished oil painting; (2.) Period or style: is the piece a student work or a mature career piece; (3.) Subject matter: for a given artist, some subjects are more desirable to collectors than others. For example, a French pastoral landscape by Eanger Irving Couse is less desirable than a Taos Indian by firelight subject; and (4.) Aesthetic merit: how successful is the work? All of these criteria may 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, 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. This occurs when in the process of removing an old layer of varnish, a layer of oil paint has also been removed; (2.) Poorly gluing a painting to a support canvas compromises value. 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 market data for comparable works identified through researching 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 collected market data.


Sometimes, however, market data is not widely available, and opinions of value must be made based on 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 within their circle or who have achieved comparable levels of market success? How successful (aesthetically) is the subject artwork? There may not be firm answers to these questions, but a reasonable opinion of value may ultimately be built on both existing market data and logic based arguments regarding the type and quality of artwork, and history of the artist.