Or perhaps your basement, your garage, or even storage closet.
When you find an artwork that looks, or doesn’t look valuable what do you do next?
In the world of appraisals, as in the world of authentication, it all comes down to best opinion. More often than not, opinions can vary. Wildly!
Lets look at some of the most notable finds, and the outcomes.
In 2014 a contested Caravaggio painting, ‘Judith Beheading Holofernes’, from the late 16th century was found by a family in Toulouse, France. When they had a leak in their roof, hidden in the rafters was a painting that could have been from the famed Italian artist.
The painting now on display in Rome’s National Gallery of Ancient Art, was cleaned and analyzed in Paris, where experts debated its true origins. Some experts claim that Louis Finson—a 17th-century Flemish Baroque painter who both studied and imitated Caravaggio’s style—created the work, while others believe that the Renaissance master painted it himself sometime in the early 1600s. (According to Finson’s will, the Flemish painter owned a copy of Judith Beheading Holofernes, but it disappeared around 400 years ago.)
Some art experts have stated that art is indeed genuine. Other experts claim that the painting lacks Caravaggio’s signature realism. In 2016, art historian Giovanni Agosti resigned from the board of Milan’s Brera Art Gallery after the institution displayed the work alongside authenticated Caravaggio paintings.
The French government has placed an export ban on the canvas until November 2018, to prevent it being snapped up by an international collector. Current value 136 million.
Van Gogh, ‘Sunset at Montmajour’, 1888
In 1908, Norwegian industrialist Christian Nicolai Mustad purchased a 19th-century painting of the French countryside at sunset. It once belonged to Theo van Gogh, noted art dealer and brother of Vincent van Gogh. Initially believed to be the famous artist’s handiwork, the 1888 artwork was reportedly relegated to the attic after the French ambassador to Sweden visited Mustad’s home and suggested it was a fake. There it sat until the collector’s death in 1970.
New homeowners suspected that the painting might be a van Gogh, so they brought it to Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum in 1991. The museum said the work was fake, it lacked a signature.
In 2013, van Gogh historians announced that the work of art had indeed been painted by the iconic Post-Impressionist painter. They noted that it was painted on the same type of canvas, and using the same techniques, as paintings van Gogh had completed in Arles, France. Also, it was listed as part of Theo van Gogh’s collection in 1890 and had “180”—the painting’s number in his collection inventory—painted on its back.
Adding to their certainty, an 1888 letter from Vincent to Theo described the painting in detail, and even mentioned the very day he’d painted it. (Before this, experts had mistakenly believed that van Gogh had been referring to another painting, an 1888 work titled The Rocks.)
After its authenticity was confirmed, Sunset at Montmajour was displayed at the Van Gogh Museum in 2013. To this day, it’s the first full-size painting by the Dutch artist to be newly authenticated since 1928. Valued around 100 million.
Untitled Gouache, Jackson Pollack, early 1900’s
In December 2015, while helping an elderly neighbor in Sun City, Arizona prepare to move into a retirement home, a local man spotted a Los Angeles Lakers poster in the garage, signed by Kobe Bryant. The piece of sports memorabilia ended up being one of the least valuable artworks in the house: While investigating the garage, they stumbled upon a painting that appeared to be by Jackson Pollock, along with a cache of works by Color Field painter Kenneth Noland, American abstract artist Jules Olitski, and visual artist Cora Kelley Ward.
The homeowner had inherited the treasure trove of paintings from his half-sister, New York socialite Jenifer Gordon Cosgriff, who died in 1993. Private investigators hired to investigate the works determined that Cosgriff had been friends with Clement Greenberg, the mid-20th century modern art critic and essayist, and artist Hazel Guggenheim McKinley, the sister of socialite and arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim. Both art world figures were friends with the artists whose works were found in the garage.
The value of the potential Pollock would be around $10 to $15 million (or even more if the painting is authenticated). But since the untitled painting is unsigned and undated (and Pollock, himself, died in 1956), authentication is not an easy task.
The provenance was traced, and forensic scientists have also dated its materials back to the mid-20th century. The research totaling up to $50,000. But the art is still waiting to be fully authenticated.
Long lost Rembrandt Van Rijn ‘The Unconscious Patient (An Allegory of Smell)’, painted around 1624, as one of five oil paintings in his series The Senses.
A small, slightly damaged oil painting that was expected to sell for just $500 to $800 at auction ended up fetching millions after experts realized it was a long-lost painting by the Dutch Old Master painter.
Created when he was in his late teens, (To this day, the artwork that represents Taste from the series is still missing.) It shows an unconscious young man who’s being revived with what appear to be smelling salts.
Despite being the product of a master artist, the canvas initially escaped notice. Not only was the 9-inch work encased in a Victorian frame, making it appear to be a 19th century Continental School painting, but its surface was flaking, and its wooden backing had cracks. Furthermore, the work had also sat in a New Jersey basement for years.
Once the painting—then dubbed Triple Portrait with Lady Fainting—finally hit the auction block, Paris art dealers immediately suspected that the work was an early Rembrandt, noticing its similarity to other paintings in the artist’s five-sense series. The dealers ended up scoring the work for the bargain price of $870,000 (or just over $1 million, after factoring in the added sale premium). In turn, they sold it to Thomas Kaplan, a New York financier and Dutch Golden Age art collector, for a reported $3 to $4 million.
Conservationists later discovered Rembrandt’s initials on the painting, under a layer of varnish, proving that the painting was indeed his work. In 2016, the restored painting was showcased at Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum, along with other works loaned from Kaplan’s collection, including Rembrandt’s The Stone Operation (An Allegory of the Sense of Touch) and The Three Musicians (An Allegory of the Sense of Hearing).
The life’s work of Arthur Pinajian
In 2007, two men who purchased a tiny, run-down cottage in Bellport, New York for around $300,000 ended up getting way more than planned. The men, simply intended to flip the home, got a stockpile of artworks stored in the home’s single-car garage in the deal. There sat thousands of paintings, drawings, and journals that were from the reclusive Armenian-American artist and comic book creator.
The cottage had once belonged to Pinajian, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 85, and his sister, Armen, who supported him financially. The artist never achieved widespread fame during his lifetime, but his works of abstract expressionism steadily gained appreciation—and value—after his death. Today, he’s remembered for creating the first cross-dressing superhero, Madame Fatal, for Crack Comics, along with carefully rendered works of Abstract Expressionism. Some art experts now refer to him in the same breath as giants like Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and Jackson Pollock.
Bitter about his lack of success, Pinajian had reportedly told his relatives to dispose of his works after he died. However, his family ended up ignoring his orders. There it remained in the garage for years, collecting dust.
The buyers paid an extra $2500 for Pinajian’s collection and soon realized they had something special on their hands.
The two considered turning the home into a museum dedicated to Pinajian’s life and career. Ultimately, the project never reached fruition. The artist’s entire collection was valued at $30 million. Since then, several galleries and museums have all exhibited Pinajian’s work, and several of his oil paintings have fetched as much as $87,000.
Henry Arthur Mcardle, ‘The Battle of San Jacinto’ circa 1901
A long-lost battle scene painted by the 19th-century Irish immigrant who went on to become an important Texas artist, was rediscovered in a West Virginia attic.
Best known for his mural-sized painting depicting the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, a pivotal battle in the Texas Revolution led by General Sam Houston. Painted in 1895, the work was later lent to the state of Texas—along with Dawn at the Alamo (1905), another large-scale painting—where it was hung in the Senate chamber of the Texas State Capitol. The two paintings still hang in the capital to this day, along with four other McArdle originals.
McArdle had painted a smaller version of the painting in 1901, which was later passed down to family members who settled in West Virginia, home state of McArdle’s second wife. Meanwhile, some experts thought the work had been destroyed in a house fire.
In 2010, McArdle’s descendent, Jon Buell, discovered the dirty painting in his grandmother’s attic, hidden between the rafters underneath a tarp. She claimed that the painting, which had sat in the attic since the 1930’s, was worthless. Buell knew better and received permission to contact a Texas auction house. The small Battle of San Jacinto painting was found to be in good condition,it ended up selling for $334,000 to a Texas buyer.
The common reaction to finding artwork in the attic to the un-art educated is to these days google a name or signature showing on the art. There are many subscription sites that you pay a monthly fee to search by artist name for biography, sales records, and auction prices.
For popular artists, there are lots of search results. For the lesser known its best to reach out to an appraiser.
Like anything, you get what you pay for. Qualified art appraisers cost as much as a good lawyer by the hour. So, knowing that painting might be worth the outlay is key.
Most honest appraisers will tell you if it’s worth pursuing an appraisal. There are many ‘appraisal’ sites, that offer a quick ‘review’ or price indication. If you haven’t found out from your own google searches, and the site is known to be reliable, it may be worth the small outlay for a quick idea. Though they are not really an appraisal, more of a value indication.
True appraisals follow USPAP guidelines and would stand up in a court situation or for IRS purposes.
Generally, appraisals are needed on valuable items, for the ‘D’ s of life. I.e.Death, Divorce, Donation, and Debt.
So, if it’s just a value you need because your thinking of selling, and you’re confident there’s value in the art, one way is to reach out to one of the big auction houses. They now have on their sites, a way to email images, paperwork, and documentation for an idea of auction estimate.
Talking of paperwork, it is key. An original receipt or certificate of authenticity (COA) can be of great help. Often known as ‘Provenance’, or a trail of ownership. If there is no paperwork with it, sometimes, a simple label on the artwork can be of help. In fact, on many artworks, that back of the artwork/frame can tell a lot of information to the educated eye.
In the world of jewelry sales, a ‘vanity’ appraisal is commonly supplied by the retailer. These ‘appraisals’ are supplied by a gemologist working directly with the retailer, or the retailer, so there is a conflict of opinion. They are essentially worthless and wouldn’t stand up in court. The same is true in the art world. Some galleries offer ‘vanity’ appraisals drawn up by the gallery, or an appraiser hired by the gallery. Again worthless.
It’s important if an appraisal is required, to have it done by a qualified professional that is independent, and not financially emboldened to the entity or person paying for the appraisal.
As for authentication, the same applies. Many COA’ s are written without contact information, i.e. address, phone, name, or company name, and often not by an expert in the field. Some are written by the same gallery or entity selling the art. Again, worthless unless the gallery has an excellent reputation on that field of artwork.
Independent experts in the field of famous and highly noteworthy artists, like those hi-lighted in this article, often vary in opinions.
Some artists, the only excepted authentication is the artist’s estate, anything else, is just an opinion.
Costs to authentication can run high, not only forensic research, historical research, but the added costs of recognized experts time in reviewing.
For example, some of the most faked or forged artists that are readily available thru the many online portals available today are Picasso, Dali, Chagall, and Miro.
Richard Hart is a senior appraiser at www.baterbys.com in Winter Park, FL, and author of several books including the latest study on Salvador Dali and His Bible available now on amazon – https://www.amazon.com/Biblia-Sacra-Dali-His-Bible/dp/0982315139.