Art appraisal is a complex, often misunderstood part of collecting. Simply put, art appraisers help ensure one’s estimates on a work of art are in line with the market value. One of the most common reasons people require an art appraiser is to assess how much a work should be insured for in the event of a disaster, or when looking to sell. Appraisals are also frequently sought when receiving an artwork as a gift or inheritance, or when determining equitable distribution in the case of a divorce or legal settlement.
Donna Thompson Ray, an appraiser at AFTA Appraisals, likens the work of an appraiser to that of an eyewitness. “As an appraiser, you want to see the work. You’re documenting its existence—you measured it, you photographed it, and you’re reporting on its condition,” she said. “All of that is critical.” Many appraisers also have professional experience within the gallery, library, archive, and museum sectors, and often have an extensive academic background, lending further credence to their expertise.
Appraisers also possess in-depth knowledge of individual state regulations surrounding art collecting. In the U.S., appraisers are credentialed through organizations such as the American Society of Appraisers (ASA), the Appraisers Association of America (AAA), and the International Society of Appraisers (ISA). Membership requirements include continuing education, taking a 15-hour Uniform Standard of Appraisal Practice (USPAP) course, and passing an official exam.
In order to make an appraiser’s work easier and more reliable, collectors are advised to be thorough with their recordkeeping. When all of the necessary paperwork is intact and readily available, an appraisal team is better able to conduct their research. Good practices include cataloging one’s collection, keeping notes on a work’s exhibition history, and keeping track of any associated literature, as well as maintaining an up-to-date history of ownership including any prior appraisals, as provenance can influence value significantly.
Keeping documentation and appraisals up to date is particularly paramount when collecting or selling works by artists who may have a preexisting commercial market. Due to the ever-changing nature of the art market, it is vital to know how an artist’s market is performing. Recordkeeping also has a large part to play when it comes to legacy-making. When passing down objects to family, documentation is key. This not only helps convey value (especially for the non-connoisseur) but also ensures that the work falls in the right hands, whether that be family or an institution. Art is an asset and, like any other asset, merits protection.
This is particularly pertinent in the case of disaster-related appraisals and other such extenuating circumstances. In these situations, the idea of the appraiser as an eyewitness no longer applies. Instead, appraisals are conducted under what is known as “limiting conditions” which means that there may be a lack of documentation surrounding the work prior to its destruction. In such cases, the appraisal report can protect the buyer as much as the seller, assuring a pursuant collector is not acquiring something fraudulent.
Even those familiar with the ins and outs of the art world would do well to consider engaging with an appraisal team. Pamela Brown of PB Fine Art Appraisals recounted a story regarding a client who was contacted by the IRS after writing off a painting that she had donated to an organization, which she had appraised herself. “Sometimes collectors feel that if they look online, they can find out what an artwork’s price is and that they can put that on their taxes,” she said. The ability to write something off, however, requires a formal appraisal if the object exceeds $5,000.00, according to IRS regulations. A self-made estimate does not suffice.
For many, collecting is an investment as much as it is a passion. Artworks can be used as collateral for a loan or used to pay off debts. When liquidating assets, formal appraisals help ensure correct prices are paid out. Much like with taxes and insurance, erring on the side of caution and engaging with an appraisal team helps avoid any surprises down the line.
Whether one is buying, selling, or acquiring a work of art through other means, art appraisers can help provide the necessary paperwork to protect and evaluate one’s collection. While a work’s worth is always in the eye of the beholder, with help from an appraiser, collectors can rest assured knowing the official value of their collection has been properly accounted for.