Appraising art takes more than ‘Antiques Roadshow’-style minutes (+video)

VIDEO: How to appraise fine art

A Wichita art appraiser explains how he figures the value of a work by famous Kansas artist Birger Sandzen. (Dan Voorhis/The Wichita Eagle)
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A Wichita art appraiser explains how he figures the value of a work by famous Kansas artist Birger Sandzen. (Dan Voorhis/The Wichita Eagle)

If you’ve ever watched “Antiques Roadshow” on PBS, you’ve probably gotten a glimpse of what Stephen Gleissner does.

It’s a show where people bring some long-held Tiffany vase or baseball memento so a helpful appraiser can talk about who made it and how much it’s worth. There’s usually an “Oh, wow” comment – and the higher the value, the more enthusiastic that “wow” is.

The disappointments are confined to a few minutes at the end of the show.

Gleissner, one of a small group of fine and decorative art appraisers in Wichita, has had moments like that.

He recalled a time early in his career when he got a call to view a painting a woman had stored under a bed. Her husband had died, and she was trying to learn more about some of the art they had owned over the years.

He looked at it and was taken aback: It was authentic and it was signed by Thomas Moran, a well-known 19th-century nature painter.

“Stunning, just stunning,” he said two decades later.

It sold for a lot of money.

But local appraisers say their work is rarely that dramatic, although it’s often very satisfying.

“It’s the discovery,” said Denice Morris, an appraiser based in east Wichita. “The discovery of something new: a new object, a new market, a new niche.

“I find art and artists so interesting. I don’t see it as a dollar sign, even though I’m supposed to.”

There are appraisers for all kinds of goods, from real estate to jewelry, each with his or her own set of rules and markets. But the principles are the same: Condition, market demand and comparable sales are what sets the value.

And in the world of fine and decorative art, there are independent appraisers, who work for the client, and those who appraise as part of their business, such as gallery owners.

How they appraise

When a client calls an independent appraiser, the appraiser first tries to assess whether the object is in their area of expertise and then to discover the purpose of the appraisal.

People generally want appraisals for a few reasons, Gleissner said: They want to sell an object, they want to know its value as part of an estate liquidation or a divorce settlement, they want to donate it so they need its value for tax purposes, or they want to insure it adequately.

It’s really not mysterious as to how appraisals are done. Gleissner – who works out of the Hillcrest Apartments, 115 S. Rutan – described it this way: He will go to a client’s house and take a quick look to see whether it’s something genuinely valuable rather than, for example, a photograph from a magazine that’s been framed. If it passes that test, he will take out his loupe – a type of magnifying glass – and black light to look for signatures, details and repairs. Then he will take photographs of the object back to his office to start research.

When he gets back to the office, he will search through art sales databases looking for comparable works that have sold recently. That will give him a range of value. And if there is a potential need to defend its value to the IRS, it will take more work to document it.

Both Gleissner and Morris said independent art appraisal is an industry very concerned with ethics because of the potential for conflict of interest and abuse. They are paid by the hour, rather than on commission, and those accredited with one of the accrediting organizations – the American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America and the International Society of Appraisers – must follow strict rules, they said.

Appraising valuables – often a sensitive topic even for rich families – and doing it well over a long period of time can build trust, Gleissner said.

“Once you’ve proven yourself, people have enormous trust that goes beyond the financial considerations,” Gleissner said. “That just means so much.”

Gallery appraisal

Reuben Saunders, the owner since 1978 of the Reuben Saunders Gallery and Artworks now at 7724 E. Central, has a more limited goal: setting fair market appraisals so he can put the work up for sale.

He specializes in Kansas artists and art, past and present, and especially the Prairie Print Makers, such as Birger Sandzen and C.A. Seward.

Saunders said he follows a similar process: a close evaluation of the pieces and research on databases to find comparable sales.

“You’re looking for a history and how it fared,” he said. “You’re looking for comps. And there are some more factors when you’re dealing with a well-known artist, somebody’s who’s unique.”

Gleissner, Morris and Saunders all agreed that the number of people seeking appraisals for their art is only growing as generational change accelerates.

“You’re seeing a lot of downsizing,” Saunders said. “Baby boomers inheriting their parents’ estates when they may already have a house full of art, or you have people who have invested in art and now want to de-accession, just like stock.”

But don’t get Saunders started on “Antiques Roadshow.” It’s the bane of his existence, he said.

Everybody thinks that old picture they found in their aunt’s attic might be worth big money, he said, so they want him to tell them what it’s worth.

Objects may go up in price from the first purchase years ago or they may not; it depends on the market and the condition of the object. What people bring in is usually junk, he said.

He said he doesn’t want to discourage people from bringing things to him but to make an appointment. If it’s valuable, they may have to pay for an appraisal.

Reach Dan Voorhis at 316-268-6577 or Follow him on Twitter: @danvoorhis.