What Online Research Doesn’t Tell You Can Hurt You

The Internet can provide collectors with a vast wealth of information. But can all of these facts foster a false sense of expertise in the general public when it comes to valuing art? By knowing some of the “hidden factors” involved in valuing a piece of art, you can avoid costly mistakes by knowing when to call in the experts.

By: Michelle Angerman

As an art appraiser, I face many challenges. With the popularity of the Antiques Road Show and the medias fascination with the increasing number of multi-million dollar paintings sold at auction, everyone is getting in on the craze of discovering their own treasures. However, things are not always as they seem.

Why the Discrepancy?

I recently received a call from a gentleman who owned a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, painted by Earl Moran. My client, who was interested in selling the piece in order to pay for his grandchildren’s college tuitions, searched online and was thrilled to find that similar Marilyn Monroe paintings had sold extremely well. But when he read the resale appraisal I had prepared for him he was shocked by his paintings low value. “How is this possible?” he asked.

On the other hand, a piece may also be worth much more than what online research indicates. For example, if you research sculptures by American artist Lynda Benglis by accessing her auction records, you’ll find that, on average, her sculptures currently bring between $1,000 and $4,500, depending on the subject, size, year, and composition. However, on February 12, 2004, a sculpture entitled Untitled (from Sparkle Knot), with a presale estimate of $3,000-$4,000, surprisingly realized $10,200 with premium (the hammer price, plus the buyers premium charged by the auction house) at auction. The same happened with Zita (from Sparkle Knot), which was included in the same sale as the previous work and was also estimated at $3,000-$4,000. It sold for $12,000, including premium.

Anyone seeing these auction results would have to wonder about what’s going on here. As an art appraiser, my instinct tells me that these pieces may be part of an important collection or that the artworks were in pristine condition. Of course, it could also be that two interior designers were simply given carte blanche to bid on behalf of their fortunate clients.

The Hidden Factors that Commonly Affect Value

In the Moran piece, although my clients research was probably reliable, he focused on high-ticket paintings that were not comparable to his piece in condition and otherwise. His painting had evidence of craquelure (a fine pattern of cracks visible to the paint layer) throughout the canvas, which lowered its value considerably. The condition of his work was simply not up to the same standard as those he had viewed online (but who could tell from seeing a tiny JPEG image on a computer screen?) Michelle; what is the “otherwise” you mention. By examining the sale of the Benglis sculptures more closely, it becomes apparent that the provenance of these sculptures is the major factor behind their auction success. Both pieces were the property of the Estate of Vera G. List. As a prominent member of society, Mrs. List served as Advisory Director of the Metropolitan Opera, was a Life Trustee of the New School University, and was a benefactress of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and was involved with countless other organizations. However, anyone just searching for auction results could easily overlook the hidden factor of provenance. For an art appraiser (and now for you), the fact that two sculptures are sold on the same day in the same sale, at prices very disproportionate to their estimates, will raise a red flag that will make them look for hidden factors.

Although condition and provenance are two of the most common the hidden factors that explain discrepancies between online research and actual results, they can also be found in the environment where the art is being sold. Is it possible for the weather to affect art sales? Absolutely! Suppose there is a February sale at Sotheby’s in New York, and that a terrible snowstorm leaves dealers and collectors stranded in airports or unable to contact the auction house to arrange phone bidding. Although such a situation can have a dramatic effect on the prices achieved that day, this information does not appear anywhere in the online auction results, leaving the potential for gross miscalculations of the value of any works of art sold that day.

Other Variables That Affect Value

In addition to factors such as condition, provenance, and the overall sales environment, other properties associated with a piece of art may need to be addressed by an expert to properly determine its value. That includes appropriately identifying the medium–is the painting oil, gouache, etc.–and determining whether there has been or needs to be restoration. An appraiser, the gallery, or an outside expert can help to determine whether there has been a restoration. If so, the question then becomes to what degree it is acceptable. Of course, this is an issue on which the opinions of collectors, scholars, and restorers are constantly changing. Again, such information cannot be found online, although it is absolutely critical and must be examined in nexus to web results.

The Responsibilities of an Appraiser

As an art appraiser, my primary responsibility involves using three essential areas of expertise:

  • Having the knowledge and connoisseurship skills to accurately identify and catalogue an artwork
  • Knowing where to search to uncover the most appropriate comparables, given the purpose of the appraisal (i.e. insurance, donation, estate tax, and equitable distribution appraisals)
  • Having the skills to properly interpret the findings of my research

I encourage people to educate themselves using the Internet. You can learn more about what you already own and what you yearn to own, you can track artists you know and discover new artists you want to follow, and you can stay abreast of prices in the ever-fluctuating art market. But there are other factors that need to be accounted for when valuing a work of art, including condition, provenance, and even the weather. Although such hidden factors are not readily apparent online, they are absolutely critical in the valuation game. To win that game, be sure to know the cards you hold, but also when to fold your hand and get the help of an art professional.

So keep on Googling, but know when to call in the appraiser!

Michelle Angerman, www.AngermanArtAppraisals.com