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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Tales of an Appraiser

Personal property appraisers have to learn a lot.  They have to take courses, read books, attend seminars and talk to experts.  In my opinion, if you are not working, you are learning, and if you are not learning, you are working. I learned two lessons this year: One – always check the information your clients give you, and two – you probably know more than you realize. Here are some war stories unique to my area – Washington DC.  I would love to hear other appraisers’ tales!

One appointment, for equitable distribution had a large painting over a center stairway of a real big house. The client hated it, but it was in the house when they bought it. As we passed by it to look at items upstairs, the client told me, ”I’ve wanted to throw it away, but it is too big to put out with the trash.”  It measures 62" by 50" in a carved wood frame. The owners sniffed that it was just decorative, and not in their taste. I had never heard of the artist, but I peeked at the back and the canvas was good and old and the front had great craquelure. I told the client I thought I should look it up. Well, the painter was Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (Spanish 1863 – 1923) and is worth about $2 million. How did they get it? The clients had bought the house from a Saudi Sheik who used it for his kids attending college. The kids apparently forgot to bring it home.  It is now in the process of getting authenticated to be sold.

The other example is the opposite. The client, the wife of a collector of fine art from old masters to modern, needed an inventory.  None of the art had been catalogued as her husband had kept all the information in his head, but he was developing Alzheimer’s, which was the reason for the appraisal. His office, was decorated with fabulous Art Deco furniture, with family portrait of the era, signed “Lempicka”. I asked the client when and where she got it and she said her husband bought it from a dealer in the sixties and paid over $100,000 for it.  I used the “Readily apparent identity clause” and calculated a value of $5 million. That made the son interested in selling it, so I offered to authenticate it before sending it to auction.  The same day that I spoke to the expert who wrote Tamara de Lempicka's cataloque raisonne, I spoke to the dealer. Slam, bam.  The expert curtly said it was not a Lempicka.  The dealer hedged a bit, then said, "Well they wanted a Lempicka so badly, and we could not find one.  So we painted them one."  The value changed to $500.00.

As appraisers, I believe we develop a network of knowledgeable people, and people deep in the business of our specialty. Don’t underestimate your resources! A few months ago I appraised a collection of art at the CIA. One modern painting had to be identified quickly because they had no idea where, or who, the painter was.  Ben Affleck, the movie star, was filming at the building in Langley and wanted the painting in the movie, but they needed the artist's permission.  The agency had sent agents all over the country looking for painters with the name on the frame, with no result. Within a few days, I asked a client, a widow of a painter in the Washington Color School group, who put me in touch with an art mover who remembered the painter, who put me in touch with the widow of the artist who shared the studio in DC where the painting was made, who lived a block away from the artist in New York. I called him and he was delighted to give permission.

So, the point is to be really careful with what your clients tell you, and your own network of experts may be better than you think.

Nini Hamalainen ISA CAPP

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