Selling your Art? What You Need To Know
Here at The Magnusson Group, we are constantly fielding questions from individuals who want to know about their artwork. Most people have been referred to us by someone they trust, like their estate or divorce attorney, their wealth manager or Realtor. Often, these inquiries follow the inheritance of a collection or a notable piece. Sometimes they want to sell; sometimes they are preparing for equitable distribution. Mostly, they just don’t know what they have or what to do.
Selling or dividing art is a challenging and time-consuming process. Provenance and value research can be confounding, as well.
The first and most important step is accurate identification. Here’s a typical inquiry at The Magnusson Group:
VALUING PAINTING VS. PRINT
A gentleman sent me a photo of an artwork he was in the process of auctioning on eBay. It was a nicely executed portrait of a man. He called it an “old painting” in his listing; maybe an oil on canvas. He bought the art at an estate sale recently, even though he usually buys toys, not art. There was a lot of interest on eBay in the art, and bids were coming in quickly. He thought, “uh oh, might this be something more than just an old painting? Maybe I should take it to an appraiser before I sell it.”
The subject looked familiar to me, but the photograph was not of a high enough quality for me to judge. I suggested that he bring the art to me to examine in person, which he did. The painting turned out to be a photocopy-style reproduction print of an Old Master painting. Had the “painting” sold on eBay, it would have been returned to him and a complaint filed with eBay by the buyer for fraud, which is criminal deception intended to result in financial gain for the seller. He could have lost his eBay selling privileges. Instead, he took down his listing and closed the auction without selling the art.
It is thoroughly possible to enjoy an art’s image, regardless of medium. However, there’s a significant difference in financial value between mediums. Recognizing characteristics of value is what appraising is all about, of which medium is just one characteristic. Other characteristics important to discern are artist, measurements, signature, style, color, subject matter, and condition. An original painting is almost always significantly more valuable than its print. Even if you think you see brushstrokes, it could be varnish over the print.
I looked at a painting last week that a client had inherited. They had “heard” that it was a valuable painting by a well-known artist. It was, indeed, an original painting, done in gouache. A similar subject done by the same artist in OIL would be worth many times the gouache.
There are also differences between pieces created by an artist, in the style or manner of an artist, or from the school of an artist, and those pieces created in reproduction or tribute to an artist. All of these factors greatly impact the importance and value of an artwork.
If artwork is improperly attributed, it will be improperly valued, and thus improperly advertised, often in the wrong marketplace, and sold for too little or won’t sell at all.
Most people want to know WHAT they have (the correct identification) and HOW MUCH it’s worth prior to making decisions on disposition. An appraisal is always the best first action to take.
Once a piece has been properly identified, valuation research can be done. Sometimes, that process can be challenging, too. If a piece is rare, assigning value can be difficult. One-of-a-kind items are fun to appraise but, it can be a time-consuming effort. It takes a lot of patience to not jump to conclusions. Some people expect appraisers to “antique roadshow” their items…. look and value in one minute. That’s not reality.
A few years ago, the death of two hoarders prompted an executor to hire us to conduct an estate tax appraisal. The executor (son) had not been in his parent’s home in decades. They met often, but, always “out;” he had been barred entry to their double penthouse on the Hudson River. He had no idea what or how much they owned. A thousand items were appraised successfully, however, one sculpture proved problematic. It was an unusual abstract life-size carved wood figure of a seated woman with deformed feet and, sadly, unsigned. In my opinion, it was a bit creepy, but I “felt” it was something important. I would need to do more research.
Soon thereafter, the contents were sold and the apartments cleaned out. The sculpture moved into my office. After a few weeks of sharing space with my new friend, my epiphany occurred. I studied those odd feet and determined they belonged to a dancer. I studied dancers of the period and determined the subject looked like a prominent NYC dancer/choreographer. I then determined the artist was an obscure female artist from the social circle of… Andy Warhol. Bingo. That association added significant value: close to six figures. In the end, the client was happy that I took my time.
How can you tell what your collection is worth, if you aren’t sure?
Co-Authors: Lynn Magnusson, ASA, AAA and Kollin Handler, Communications Director