A Note on Art Appraisals

Image result for Stock images art auctions

People approach me all the time with requests for appraisals of works of art. While it is clear that the demand is present here in Jamaica, and that I could perhaps make a pretty penny if I would offer such services, I am reluctant to do so for two reasons. One is that I am more comfortable working on the non-profit, academic side of the art world and do not generally involve myself in the art market. The other is my discomfort with the lack of professional standards and accreditation mechanisms in the field of art appraisals in Jamaica. Although there are persons who do such work with great diligence and integrity, I often see and hear things that make my toes curl.

Let me first clarify what an appraisal is, since many in the local art world conflate it with a valuation, although the latter is of course the most common part of it. Appraisals may involve other considerations, such as ascribing a work of art to a particular artist, place of origin, and period, or ruling out forgeries (and art forgeries do occur in the Caribbean). Appraisals may also involve the production of condition reports, although these are often better done by a professional conservator; provenance documentation; and assessments of an art work or collection’s quality and significance. Appraisals and valuations are done for different purposes, for instance to determine the fair market value in the case of a sale between willing parties; for insurance, estate or taxation matters; or in any other case where such a professional opinion about value, significance, and attribution is needed.

The international standard is that appraisals should be conducted in an ethical and professional manner, by persons who are appropriately qualified and accredited, and the processes involved must be transparent, verifiable, independent, and knowledgeable. The valuation part provides an informed estimate of the art work’s value for the purpose that this estimate this is needed – the valuation for an auction may be different, for instance, from the one for an insurance claim. The key point with regards to valuations and authentications is, however, that these should not be pulled out of a hat, represent wishful thinking, or worse, amount to an unethical attempt at influencing the market, in favour of the appraiser or a third party affiliated with the appraiser. The article linked here provides a quite thorough overview of standards that apply in the US context and what appraisals may be used for.

As a general rule, art appraisals are done by experienced art historians or other persons with advanced and verifiable qualifications in the field. Since appraisals require specialist knowledge, it is expected that the appraiser will have the appropriate specialist scholarship and experience on the sort of art to be appraised: a specialist in, say, Italian Renaissance art would not have much to say about the work of a Jamaican painter from the 1930s or 40s; nor would a specialist in Jamaican art be called upon to appraise, say, a work from the Russian Avant-garde. In-depth knowledge is also required of the market(s) in which a work of art may appear, and the valuation part of an appraisal is also contextual: a Jamaican painting may have a different market value in the Jamaican context than, say, in Canada. The findings presented in an appraisal of a particular work of art may also change over time, as new information and authentication technologies become available, and as market dynamics change. And ultimately, no matter how diligent the appraiser is with his/her research and evaluation, an appraisal remains, in most cases, an informed opinion, based on rather subjective factors. It is necessary to keep in mind that art values are among the most subjective of all property values.

File:Leonardo da Vinci or Boltraffio (attrib) Salvator Mundi circa 1500.jpg
Salvator Mundi

The attribution of Salvator Mundi, which some authorities have claimed is by Leonardo da Vinci himself and which consequently sold at auction for a record US$ 400 million in 2017, is an example of how widely those opinions can diverge. The painting’s authenticity has been repeatedly challenged and is presently again in doubt. And the recent controversy that the work may have been for  sale when it was exhibited at the National Gallery in London in 2011, as a confirmed work by da Vinci, illustrates why public museums ought to stay away from actions that may influence the art market, as its critics imply that this powerful but perhaps ill-advised endorsement, by means of its inclusion a major museum exhibition, would have influenced its market value inappropriately.

Doing appraisals requires significant research and access to reliable information. Valuations, for instance, are usually done based on the history of realized sales of comparable works of art. Most major auction houses make their sales records available online and there are various subscription websites where sales values and other relevant market information can be obtained – these are among the resources used by appraisers along with personal records. Doing an art appraisal normally requires a physical inspection of the work of art. While appraisals are also done online these days, the margins of error will be larger and authentications will have greater uncertainty. Appraisers are expected to be able to justify, in writing, how they have come at their conclusions. In contexts such as Jamaica’s, a significant part of the art market is informal and often off the record entirely, and this makes it harder to provide a transparent and verifiable valuation, as reliable comparative information may not be available.

Establishing the provenance of an art work is an important tool is this context. Derived from French, in which the term literally means “where it comes from,” the provenance of an art work documents its history of ownership and custody, in the best instance all the way back to the artist, and any other information that may be relevant, such as its conservation and alteration history, and its exhibition and publication history, if such applies. Provenance, if fully and properly documented, establishes the authenticity and attribution of an art work, and also ensures that the transactions that take it to the present moment are above board, and not unethical or illicit – for instance in the event that the art work would have been looted or stolen. Internationally, major collectors and museums will not acquire a work of art in the secondary market, or even as a donation, unless its fully documented and credible provenance is available.

It is about time that the Caribbean catches on to this concept, although this is again quite difficult if there is a lack of formal documentation about past and present ownership. Because when it comes to high value art transactions, it cannot be a casually conveyed “so-and-so says that it came from the collection of so-and-so”, as all too often happens in the Caribbean. One could never sell or buy real estate or a vehicle that way, as such transactions have been formalized and require titles and other appropriate documentation, for the protection of all parties involved. The same standards should apply to art and a titling system for art works over a certain value would greatly help to bring more transparency to the local art markets.

To return to the question of professional ethics, appraisers should decline to do an appraisal if they are not able to provide an informed professional opinion, because the appraisal is outside of their area of expertise; if there is any conflict of interest; or if the transaction for which the appraisal is requested is in any way unethical or illegal (for instance, involves goods that are known to be stolen or otherwise misappropriated). An important rule of thumb, with regards to conflict of interest, is that appraisers should stay clear of appraisals in which they have a direct or indirect economic interest or are otherwise self-interested, as this would compromise the independence and credibility of the report. It should not happen, for argument sake, that an appraiser attaches a value below market value to a work of art in a formal appraisal and then promptly acquires it or brokers its acquisition by an associate. Nor should the value and attribution of a work in which the appraiser has a direct or indirect interest be artificially pumped up to yield a greater profit. And, generally speaking, it is not recommended for appraisers to work on a commission basis, as this too constitutes a conflict which might lead to inflated values – fixed or hourly rates are recommended. With regards to all these matters, it is buyer beware!

One common view, to which I subscribe, is that art dealers and collectors ought not to do appraisals (although this of course does not prevent them from making an offer on a work of art or from offering it at a particular price). I do recognize, however, that the small professional skills pool in the Caribbean art world may require some accommodations, although in such instances, clear agreed guidelines and an obligation to disclose any competing interests would still be required. Where I am not prepared to support such accommodations, however, is for museum professionals, since this involves being in a position of power and influence for which public accountability is required and it is just not acceptable, in my view, for museum professionals to produce commercial valuations. Other forms of appraisal, such as authentications, may be deemed permissible in some contexts but the Salvator Mundi example well illustrates that almost all forms of appraisal have commercial implications and where this involves mobilizing institutional power dynamics, there ought to be the greatest possible care.

There are several ethical codes and policies that articulate the principles and bounds of appropriate professional conduct for museums and many museums, large and small, have published their own. The Tate’s Ethics Policy, which applies to staff and trustees alike, lists the following as its general guiding principle:

No individual should use his or her position at Tate for personal gain or to benefit another at the expense of the Museum, its mission, its reputation, or the public which it serves, nor should any individual act in a way that could be reasonably seen by others as compromising the independence and integrity of Tate.

This principle resonates with the second article, on integrity, of the Seven Principles of Public Life,  which are the supposed guiding principles in government in the UK:

Holders of public office must avoid placing themselves under any obligation to people or organisations that might try inappropriately to influence them in their work. They should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends. They must declare and resolve any interests and relationships.

These general guiding principles are very similar, by the way, to what is outlined in the Staff Orders that govern the work of public sector workers in Jamaica and similar professional codes in other Caribbean countries. It is high time for our museums to publish their own, so that there is greater clarity on what exactly they need to be held to account about.

The ICOM Code of Ethics, which the minimum accepted international professional code for museum professionals, speaks specifically to the matter of valuations and what services the museum may provide:

Valuations may be made for the purposes of insurance of museum collections. Opinions on the monetary value of other objects should only be given on official request from other museums or competent legal, governmental or other responsible public authorities. However, when the museum itself may be the beneficiary, appraisal of an object or specimen must be undertaken independently.

With other words, it is not deemed acceptable for museum professionals to do valuations for the art market, as any professional involvement in this market might amount to abuse of position and would be in conflict with their obligations towards the museum, and the independence and impartiality that needs to prevail in that context. Museums should not be beholden to commercial interests in their curatorial decisions pertaining to exhibitions and acquisitions. ICOM, or the International Council of Museums, is a UNESCO body, and member organizations are expected to comply with its provisions. The ICOM code speaks at some length about the various conflict of interest issues that may occur in the museums field. It is recommended reading, as it sheds useful light on the standards to which all (public) museums should operate.

But to return, in closing, to the specific issue of art appraisals in the Caribbean, what is really needed is education, so that all stakeholders understand what is involved, as well as professional accreditation, since duly accredited appraisers will be bound by appropriate professional standards. This could either be done by registering with overseas organizations but since most Caribbean countries are to small too support national organizations, perhaps the time has come for a professional body to be established in (Anglophone) Caribbean, so that guidelines can be appropriately tailored to local needs and circumstances. Such an initiative would be of great benefit to the Caribbean art world and it is perhaps something for an established regional arts organization to take on.


One thought on “A Note on Art Appraisals

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  1. It made sense when you said that new technologies for authentication will become available over time. My sister mentioned she wants to find an art authentication service for a piece she’s considering purchasing from a gallery this summer. Asking about authentication technology should help her find a reliable analysis service, so thanks for sharing that idea I can pass along!


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