Sunday, February 18, 2018

What Do I Do Now?

Your Great Aunt Nellie died recently and left you with a group of art works.  Your first thought is what did she expect me to do with these.  Its simple:

-Learn what it is that you wish to sell
-Find out its provenance
-Reach out to both dealers and auction houses
-Make the difficult decision

Truthfully, it is not quite that simple.  Would have been nice if one of the paintings that was left you was signed by Rembrandt together with all the references in the various monographs including the latest one.  When I was first in the business there were 600 recognized Rembrandts in the literature and that was reduced by the next generation to 300. One more generation and we were down to 150.  Then a committee was set up to decide what paintings Rembrandt actually did and which were just a follower of Rembrandt’s.  Only one member of the scholars’ committee has stayed with the project and I do not know how many Rembrandts are recognized in the current literature.

You quickly ascertain that the painting you have been left is not by Rembrandt but by who is it?  Should you believe that the work is not by Aunt Nellie herself nor her immediate family, see if it is signed on the front or the back.  Should a name appear, go to the web and put in the name with a comma and the word artist afterwards and see if that is a lead.  If so see if the works on line are similar to what you have inherited.

Should you feel there is hope that the work may have some value beyond sentimental,  scour your aunt’s records for an invoice, or letter of gift, or any clue as to how she obtained the picture.  This information in rare cases can add to the value if the work belonged to someone important.  More important, however, is that it might help authenticate the work.  If there is a letter to Aunt Nellie from the artist gifting it to her out of friendship or gratitude you need seek no further.

The Print Lovers by Honoré Daumier

If you believe you have identified the artist see if there are any monographs on the artist and go through those to see if your picture is in there.  This will be important for you to know when you go to the next step and try to find out what the picture is worth. 

If you have that proverbial Rembrandt mentioned above and it is first rate you might go to the most prominent auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s, but since this is most probably not the case I would not have high expectations.  My father used to say, referring to the major auction houses.  “We can compete with their prices but not with their estimates.”  More than once I have been seduced by an estimate only to get a phone call shortly before the sale asking me to reduce my reserve (the price below which I will not sell) and have them slash the estimate and still buy in (not sell) the picture.  Then your picture is not only handed back to you, usually with fees, but it is what is known as “burned”.  Everyone knows the price it failed to bring and you will have great problems selling the picture for a long time because if no one else wants it, why should anyone else buy it.

Auction is also a lottery.  Someone, and preferably two people, have to want it at that time and place.  If the sale is in New York and the person who is interested to buy the work is in Georgia he may not be able to either get to New York or know who to send in his place.

I owned a contemporary painting by a British artist about 6 feet high that I no longer had room for.   No New York dealer had ever heard of the artist.  I looked her up on line and found that the New Orleans Auction Galleries had sold the artist’s work successfully.  I got less than my cost from the sale but I no longer had to pay storage for the art. 

The way I like to sell is through a dealer, if need be on consignment. If it is on consignment you have a agreed on the price you will receive, you can even agree on the dealer’s commission or he will give you a net figure that you get all of.  If after a set period of time it does not sell you can still put it in auction and there are no records to indicate that the work was available at a different price. 

How do you find a dealer?  One way is to go to the web and go to  It stands for La Confédération Internationale des Négociants en Oeuvre d’Art,  The International Confederation of  Art Dealers . This is an organization consisting of over 30 art and antique dealers’ associations in over 20 countries and representing about 5,000 dealers.  They have been vetted by their associations and deal in almost every area of the art market.  Start with the ones closest to home and make a few phone calls sending some really good photos and the information you have gathered and  see what they have to say.  Don’t forget that it costs to ship and insure a work so take that into account.

Now its time to get some expert advice.  If you are unfamiliar with the art world and have no idea where to turn get in touch with your nearest museum and find out who the curator is in the department where you think your work might belong.  The museum will NOT appraise it for you and you should not ask.  You only want to know what they think it is and who in the commercial world, auction house or dealer, might have the specific expertise in the art or artists you have to be able to help you.

Good luck with your quest, detective work can be lots of fun … enjoy!

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