The ISA NOW Blog has a new home!

You'll be redirected shortly.

Make sure to update your bookmarks.
If you aren't automatically redirected, click the link to visit the new blog.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The “Ideal Appraiser”

I’ll never forget my first: “What the heck am I looking at” moment as a new appraiser. That moment of self-doubt and terror is forever etched in my mind. The call was for a collection which, as described, was firmly in my comfort zone: An insurance appraisal of a modest collection of Pennsylvania Impressionist paintings. Unexpectedly, my heart was beating wildly as I tried not to show a complete lack of familiarity with a “border Limner painting of one of my ancestors”, a portrait of a forbidding she-wolf of a woman, who stared accusingly back at me through two centuries, securely contained in her American Federal Period frame.

On that day, I had no idea what the words “border limner” meant, but I certainly thought I should! I thought I probably had no business appraising art because I didn’t know. I was holding myself to an impossible “Ideal” standard. Today, a young appraiser in my shoes could perform a 20 second Google search to discover this term simply refers to an itinerant, generally untrained, traveling Early American artist who exchanged their ability as a portrait artist for room and board. But these were the days before home computers. I measured and photographed and scurried home to make an embarrassed call to a generous ISA American Art dealer friend who patiently explained (without making me feel inadequate), not only what the term meant, but was willing to review my photographs and lead me in the direction of truly comparable examples on the recent market.

This was a great first experience with reaching out to a fellow ISA Appraiser for help with a project. Over the next twenty years, experienced ISA appraisers with a broad range of highly developed expertise have proved to be among the most generous of professional resources.

The late, great Norman Hurst, ISA CAPP stands out in this regard. Norman was a brilliant, Harvard-educated tribal art expert with decades of experience and undisputed connoisseurship. He held the highest level of credentialing from all three professional appraisal organizations; the nation’s top museums were on his client list. He could have been intimidating, but his kind and gentle nature made him utterly approachable. Norman was very comfortable stringing the words: “I don’t know” together. He also taught me to use terms like: “In this appraiser’s opinion”, “no signature found” (rather than “unsigned”), “appears to be”, and “is probably”. Norman’s advice: “If it can be qualified, do so”. He also taught me to disclose any area of uncertainty and to list (as a limiting condition) when the client declines critical additional research, and how this might impact the value conclusion. Working with Norman gave me the courage and confidence to admit what I didn't know. If a professional of his education and experience could do so and still hold his client's trust, this had to be the right approach.

Norman’s examples have saved me from more than a few close calls. About ten years ago I was retained for a second opinion of market value. The work in question was, what appeared to be, an unsigned 19th Century copy of a 17th Century European Genre painting owned by a private New England boarding school. The plan was to sell the work to an alumnus to raise a little cash. A well-known NYC gallery had appraised the work based on “readily apparent identity” as a decorative painting for $2,000. Looked about right to me. It was tempting to fall in line with the gallery’s appraisal. What bothered me about the work was that it was supported by a cradled wood panel, often added after a century or so when the original wood panel begins to warp. The client initially declined additional fees for further investigation. I needed the job and it was not easy to admit I lacked the expertise to adequately assess painting. It was tough, but I did decline the project. In the end, archives turned up which helped to identify the artist. The work was authenticated and sold at auction for over $200,000. It is easy to imagine how this assignment could have become an unpleasant headline!

As ISA appraisers we have two powerful assets truly unique to our society: diversity and camaraderie. If you’ve never attended an ISA Conference, ASSETS 2013 might be a good time to start. Aside, from the strong program, this is a once a year opportunity to get to know your fellow ISA members. It’s easier to make that: “What the heck am I looking at” call to a friend with whom you’ve shared a laugh or a war story over a cocktail or a cup of coffee.

Looking back, I was often hesitant to ask for help because I was unfairly comparing myself to an “Ideal Appraiser”, who knows everything about everything and never has to ask. Many more uncomfortable: “What the heck am I looking at” moments later, the “ideal appraiser” now looks like a professional who most likely knows a lot about a little, a little about a lot, has the wisdom to know the difference and the confidence to reach out for help.

Cindy Charleston Rosenberg, ISA CAPP

No comments:

Post a Comment