Nfld. & Labrador

How much is that old painting worth? You may be surprised

Consignor Canadian Fine Art is holding free public art appraisals at MUN’s Signal Hill campus.

Canadian art appraisers seek hidden gems at free public event

How much is that old painting worth? Art appraiser Rob Cowley says you may be surprised. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Rob Cowley flips through a stack of dusty artworks, piled in the back of a second-hand store. Most are reproductions, with only decorative value. But you never know when an original painting by a significant artist will be hiding at the bottom of the pile.

"I've been doing it for almost 20 years, but you're still always learning," said Cowley.

On Wednesday, Cowley will get an education on the potential gems people in this part of the country have hanging on their walls. Consignor Canadian Fine Art is holding free public art appraisals at Memorial University's Signal Hill campus.

People are encouraged to bring along any painting they would like to know more about, and of course, to learn about its value.

Potentially valuable artworks could be hanging in your home, or priced for cheap at second-hand stores. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"Despite the fact that we're deep into the internet age, where people can always look themselves and check artists names, it's amazing in these days that we hold from coast to coast, how many times a client will come in with something that does hold value," said Cowley, president of Consignor.

"I don't think we've ever held a valuation day across Canada where we haven't unearthed something, whether it's something that's a few thousand dollars or something that's tens of thousands of dollars."

Often, these artistic treasures are hiding in plain sight.

"We had a case in Toronto three or four years ago where a client had a William Kurelek hanging on their wall," said Cowley.

"The family had received it directly from the artist but didn't know who he was at the time and he passed away a couple years later. They brought it in to us, had no idea, and it sold for about $45,000.

"That was hanging on the wall. That was something that was around them, that they grew up with, but they had never researched it and they didn't have any background in terms of the artist."

When sizing up old artworks, try to determine if it's an original painting or a reproduction. The latter usually have limited market value. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Cowley says many people inherit art from aging family members who are downsizing to smaller homes. Also, today's open-concept homes have less wall space, so many people just don't have room for large collections.

Not-so-hidden gems

Valuable artwork can also be uncovered at second-hand stores and consignment boutiques. At Previously Loved Clothes and Things in St. John's, stacks of old paintings are being donated all the time.

Gail Dempsey, executive director of Epilepsy Newfoundland and Labrador, which operates thrift shop Previously Loved, said they try to get a sense of painting's potential value before they slap on a price tag. But they don't try terribly hard.

Gail Dempsey is executive director of Epilepsy Newfoundland and Labrador, which operates thrift shop Previously Loved Clothes and Things in St. John's. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"We have a team who prices things when they come in," said Dempsey. "Our thought is, if you want to buy it and resell it, go right ahead. You'll make some money, we'll make some money, and everyone will be happy."

Dempsey said she doesn't lose any sleep thinking about the potential masterpieces that could be picked up dirt cheap at Previously Loved.

"We're delighted because first thing you're going to do then is tell everybody where you got it, and the next day, we have everybody in our parking lot, looking for their big find," said Dempsey.

But she cautions that to get a steal of a deal, you'd have to get there early.

"We put out a thousand items every day. But if you're here to snap it up, and you get our gold bracelet for three dollars and you sell it for three hundred, that's your good fortune."

Worthless trinket or valuable sculpture? (Zach Goudie/CBC)

On this trip, Cowley didn't find any treasures in the donated art at Previously Loved. But he said clients are sometimes actually relieved to discover a painting isn't valuable after all.

"So many individuals have homes full of material they'd like to get rid of, but there's a fear with art. If they don't have an understanding or they don't have a background in art, there's that apprehension about letting something go, in case it has value," he said. 

"So oftentimes, people are relieved to come in and hear that something may not be of great value, so they can give it to a family member or they can bring it to a second-hand store, and not worry about the fact that they may have just dropped off a Renoir."

Cowley, president of Consignor Canadian Fine Art, searches for hidden gems. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

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