Why You Need a Fine Art Appraiser You Can Trust

Artwork Archive | December 10, 2015 (Updated April 12, 2021)

The first painting Charles Tovar bought was a Joseph Claude Vernet at a Sotheby’s auction in Los Angeles. “I was a young kid and I paid about $1,800 for that painting,” he remembers. Tovar bought the piece because he liked it. Although he wasn’t trying to make a profit or use it as an investment, anyone would be excited to learn that, after a professional cleaning, it was worth $20,000.

That’s when Tovar became interested in appraising art. It was 1970 at the time and certification programs to be a professional art appraiser weren’t on the map yet. Even now that certifications are available, that isn’t your only answer to whether you’re working with a competent appraiser or not. “I realized that people don’t know what they’re doing,” Tovar says, “they can’t read signatures, they don’t speak foreign languages.” A multi-linguist with seven languages in his tool box, Tovar started by studying restoration which gave him the exposure and experience he needed to start working in authenticating pieces.

We spoke with Tovar on what to look for in an appraiser and how to best utilize appraisers to maintain your art collection:

1. Work with an Appraiser with Experience

Working as an appraiser takes practice. Although a recent graduate in the fine arts may be familiar with a famous artist’s work, he’s not necessarily familiar with the fakes. It takes practice to know what to look for. An appraiser needs to be able to discern between dirty varnish and dull colors, authentic signatures, the age of the painting, and how old the paint is. At a Nicolas Poussin Expo, Tovar purchased a painting that he thought was worth about $2.5 million. He sent it to the McCrone Institute in Chicago. Leading experts in microscopy, The Institute found Titanium White paint on the canvas, which wasn’t invented until after the artist’s death. In other words, it wasn’t real. These are the details you need your appraiser to track down and understand.

“Break it up into categories,” Tovar encourages. Whether you are looking for someone who is a specialist in an era or an artist, find the person with the right experience. Every appraiser tends to specialize in an area, whether it’s 20th century art or million dollar appraisals. Bottom line: work with someone who is familiar with the type of opinion you need.

2. Let Appraisers Help You Define and Maintain Your Collection

A lot of appraisers will give an email consult for free. If you are thinking about buying something, you can send them an email full of photos and they will give you their best guess. Work with appraisers when you are thinking about buying something to consult on the authenticity and the current state of a piece. For example, have an appraiser assess the condition in case you want the seller to clean the work before you commit to buying it. Appraisers can also be a good resource on how to further define your collection, and give you ideas on what you might want to focus on with upcoming purchases.

Having an appraiser you trust will help you keep an expert eye on your collection. Tovar told us the story of a colleague who was helping a client with the sale of a simple painting, that he thought might be worth $20. It was a medium-sized oil painting of a vase full of flowers, signed with a V. The appraiser started to think this painting was made by one of the greats and called an expert in 20th century art to take another look. The Royal Academy of Art, The Hague in the Netherlands was eventually contacted to give an opinion on the piece and requested that it be shipped to Europe. The $20 painting was a Van Gogh.

3. Have a Regular Appraisal and Condition Report of Your Collection

Tovar suggests having an updated valuation of your art collection every five years. You should also have a condition report every 7 to10 years. A condition report is an update on your collection’s state of cleanliness. Just because the painting looks like a night scene, doesn’t mean it was intended to be one. One example of this is the most recent restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Causing controversy, some historians were concerned that the restoration reversed Michelangelo’s initial palette of matte colors and intricate shadowing. Although when the restoration was finished, it became clear that the shadows were still very apparent, and the color palette used by the famed artist was, in fact, brighter than initially thought. The New York Times reported on the restoration in 1990 saying, “Michelangelo's use of vivid color in his painting at the Uffizi in Florence known as the ‘Doni Tondo’ no longer seems like an isolated event.”

Having a painting or piece cleaned also opens doors to better understanding its history and confirming its creator. It gives new insight into the signature and the style of the work. “The condition is going to affect the value tremendously,” Tovar explains.

Store your appraisal documents in your Artwork Archive profile. You can store the appraisals over the years, both documenting the appreciation of the piece and safeguarding your provenance within the cloud.

Tovar also suggests photos of your artwork, which can also be stored in your Artwork Archive account. “I tell people that they need to turn around and take pictures,” he explains. “Take these pictures and put them away in case of theft. A lot of art is stolen and a lot of art can be recovered.”

Tovar has worked with stolen art before and seen it be recovered. “Over the years I have known dealers that have bought paintings and found out later that they was stolen,” he elaborates, “and they turn around and give them back.”

4. Work with Appraisers to Truly Understand the Value of Your Collection

Depending on the type of appraisal you need, the opinion will vary. Work with an appraiser who understandings your goals and the difference between needing an appraisal for an estate plans vs. a market value. Learn more about the different types of appraisals here.

For most, collecting art isn’t a job. It’s a hobby and people do it because it’s fun. What starts as internal instinct could turn into a goldmine–or it could be worth nothing.“The art business is a fun business,” Tovar says. Working with the experts and becoming an expert yourself is your ticket to maintaining a strong, intelligent collection. To do this, you need to have a good eye and know whom to work with. Remember that Vernet painting Tovar bought for $1,800 in 1970? Today, 45 years later, it’s worth $200,000. “It’s like anything else,” he admits, “it’s the chase.”

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