Art appraisal: valuing the painting from your attic or closet

With the spring auction season around the corner, longtime collectors are not the only ones bringing forth valuable artworks from around the world; average art-lovers are getting in on the action as well.

Consignor Canadian Fine Art offers free appraisals as spring auction season kicks off

Consignor Canadian Fine Art specialist Lydia Abbott on what she's looking for when the public brings artwork in for evaluation. 2:27

With the spring auction season around the corner, longtime collectors are not the only ones bringing forth valuable artworks from around the world; average art-lovers are getting in on the action as well.

Inspired by TV's Antiques Roadshow, which invites people to bring in items to be appraised by experts, Toronto auction house Consignor Canadian Fine Art recently opened its doors to offer free appraisals and auction valuations to regular folks with paintings, prints or sculptures by Canadian artists.

Hoping to discover hidden treasures, Consignor specialist and auction veteran Lydia Abbott worked with visitors to evaluate their artworks. Some brought in pieces they had inherited, while others showed off finds from their attics or basements.

"Often when someone has [a work of art], they don't have the expertise to really find out what it is or what it’s worth," Abbott says. 

"We're able to provide free valuations to anyone who walks in and has something that they’d like to find out more about."

The commandments of art appraisal

Abbott uses criteria she calls the "10 commandments of art appraisal" to determine whether an artwork has value and, if so, to what extent. She advises collectors at home to look into some of these subject areas:

  • The artist's name and his or her background: "The story is a very important part of the valuation of an artwork," she says. "If you take a look at our auction catalogs, they're often accompanied by short essays that try and give the story of the painting: a bit about the artist, where this artwork came from and why it's important in their career.” It's also important to check if the work is signed and whether the piece follows a particular style or period for which the artist is known.

  • Where did it come from? An artwork's provenance and record of ownership, which might be tracked through an original invoice or earlier appraisal, can be used to gauge the authenticity or quality of a piece. A painting or print might have a gallery label on the back indicating that it was once exhibited, which often adds to the valuation. Figuring out a past owner can also make a piece more special, Abbott says. "An artwork that was owned by an important public figure, for instance, trades for higher at auction than the same artwork that was just in a private collection for many years." 

  • When was it created? An artwork is more valuable if it originates from a strong period of the artist’s career or reflects a popular time for the artist. The date of the artwork, often located on the back, can be useful in determining the period it was created and give an idea of its potential value. 

  • Condition: It is important to watch out for indications of damage, like cracking or discoloration. "If [the artwork] is in pristine condition and it's a work from the 1930s, versus a work from the 1930s by that same artist that perhaps has some cracking or has some water damage, that will affect [the value of the artwork]," Abbott says. 

  • Other factors that can affect the value of an artwork: rarity, subject matter and connection toart associations that exhibited it.

Chance finds can lead to high appraisals

Every now and then, lucky owners can receive unexpectedly high appraisals on something brought in by chance, says Abbott. She recalls, for instance, when a couple came in with a painting they'd kept in their closet for years.

Abbott quickly realized that the artwork was by celebrated Canadian artist Marc-Aurèle Fortin. The painting was eventually given a value of $50,000 to $70,000.

Immediately, I saw the subject and was kind of taken aback and I thought: Oh, wow. I know who this is.- Lydia Abbott, managing director, Consignor Canadian Fine Art

"Immediately, I saw the subject and was kind of taken aback and I thought: 'Oh, wow. I know who this is,'" she recalls. 

"As soon as I saw it, I was able to identify the period, who the artist was, see that the condition was wonderful and hear the great story of [the work] being almost a found piece of art, because [the owners] didn't know if they should put it in the garage sale or not."

There's a similar story with one particular lot in the upcoming Heffel Fine Art Auction House sale later this month.

Upcoming Canadian art auctions

  • Consignor - May 21-29 (online)
  • Waddington's - May 26 (Toronto)
  • Heffel - May 28 (Vancouver)

In fall 2013, a couple bought a painting at a garage sale in the town of Morin-Heights, Que. They didn't recognize the artist's name — Edwin Holgate — but they liked the work because it depicted a scene from Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, a place they'd visited and to which they felt a personal connection. The couple "paid the full asking price of two dollars without negotiation," according to Heffel.

After doing a quick online search afterwards, they discovered their purchase had tremendous value. Known for his landscapes and portraiture, Holgate joined the Group of Seven as an eighth member in 1929. In 1946, Holgate had built a house in Morin-Heights.

The couple consigned the work to Heffel, where it is estimated to sell for $15,000 to $20,000 later this month.

While everyone hopes their artwork will be appraised highly, the reality is that hidden treasures are few and far between, so an important part of the process is learning to be sensitive when there might not be value for a work in the current market, Abbott explains.

"Sometimes it's difficult, but I think it's about learning how to present the facts in a way that is educational... and is helpful,” she says.

A couple discovered Edwin Holgate's oil painting Grand Manan at a garage sale in the Quebec town of Morin-Heights in 2013. They paid just $2 for the work, which is expected to sell for between $15,000 and $20,000 this month at auction. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)


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