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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Learning Never Ends

Upon finishing the task of editing an appraisal, I glanced up the corner of my desk to spy a photograph of my six year old grandson in his kindergarten graduation cap and gown. For the umpteenth time I thought about how “stinkin cute” he is. Then I began to ponder the concept of education. Education starts so early in our lives and should (in my mind) never end.

I have had years of undergraduate and graduate art history study. I have worked in museums and galleries for over 25 years. I am a docent at a museum which houses works in my specialty area. Despite the education and the experience, every time I walk into a new client’s space to inspect unseen works, I still feel a sense of anxiety. For me every inspection and every appraisal proves the old adage of “the more you learn, the more you realize what you don’t know”.

This is one of the reasons I enjoy appraising so much. No matter how many artists and art historical movements I know, there seems to be a constant supply of new ones to learn and add to the list. Today there is so much information and new studies about the “important artists” particularly with branded works, but much less information or studies on artists or works in the middle market and below.

People tend to buy “what speaks to them” whether it’s a known, important, or even a good work - unless they are “trophy purchasing”.  When someone finds out that you are an appraiser, in their passion for their own collection (small or large), they will ask “have you heard of…”?.  It doesn’t always help to explain that there have been thousands of years and many countries and states with artists both professional and amateurs and no one can know them all.

My point in all the above rambling is this. When one decides to appraise (particularly fine art), they should appraise items for which they have specialty knowledge in.  By specialty knowledge, I mean an area that one has had a thorough education in and with working experience. One should never assume that they know it all or that all they have to do is look up a few comparables that look similar. One who puts themselves out there as a specialist should have a level of connoisseurship to understand which comparables are truly comparable and don’t just look alike (because sometimes there is a world of difference in value between things that appear to be the same on the surface).
There are many times when an appraisal assignment includes items that aren’t in the appraiser’s specialty area. I remember having items like antique clocks and wine in a few of my assignments. I may be able to tell time and enjoy drinking wine but I am not a specialist in those areas.

However, I do know specialists and am not afraid to enlist their help and give credit where credit is due. What results is an accurate appraisal which makes the client happy and keeps this appraiser out of trouble. I have also learned something new to tuck away for future use. Does it make me a specialist in clocks or wine in the near future? No way and I wouldn’t want to have to appear in court and answer questions about clocks or wine, but I do know a little more.

Being competent in methodology and report writing allows an appraiser to branch out with the aid of colleagues who are specialists in areas that we are not. However, in ones area of specialty there is probably so much more one can know to truly stand out as an excellent appraiser.  Lectures, webinars, google alerts, involvement with museums, historical sites, dealers and auction houses, specialty magazines and self-study are all ways to become better at what you do.

Will following my own advice give me less anxiety as I enter an inspection? Probably not; but I will probably have more confidence and enjoyment going forward in the process through completion of said appraisal.

Christine Guernsey, ISA CAPP
Chair, Fine Arts Committee

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