Monday, May 19, 2014

Assume Nothing

This blog is intended as a forum to explore issues, challenges and developments germane to the field of fine art appraisals.  As my area of expertise is contemporary art, my posts will likely tilt in that direction, but my goal is to provide an opportunity to discuss all aspects of appraisal practice.  The title of the blog is a term that all professional appraisers will recognize.  According to USPAP, an extraordinary assumption is “an assumption, directly related to a specific assignment, as of the effective date of the assignment results, which, if found to be false, could alter the appraiser’s opinions or conclusions”.   I have always liked the term because it imbues a very mundane concept with a bit of drama.   In practice, what the term means is this:  “if this Mark Rothko painting from 1957 turns out to be by an unknown painter living in Queens who painted it 3 years ago, then it isn’t worth over 50 million dollars”.  In fact, pretty much everything that an appraiser takes for granted is an ‘extraordinary assumption’, which means that these assumptions are hardly extraordinary at all on the face of it. 

I have had clients complain all of the boiler plate that goes at the beginning of appraisals…pages and pages that seemingly absolve the appraiser from any responsibility whatsoever in the event that something goes wrong.  The extraordinary assumption, which can be used very broadly and liberally, seems to get an appraiser off the hook in most cases.  On one level this seems fair:  we appraisers are not paid to authenticate, nor are we conservators or forensic scientists for that matter.  The extraordinary assumption concept signals to all users of an appraisal that we cannot legally be held accountable for something about which we are claiming no specific expertise.

However, as Victor Weiner, a man with deep experience as an expert in legal proceedings, has pointed out, an appraiser had better be sure about any extraordinary assumptions they take. If an appraiser holds themselves out to the public as knowledgeable about a certain category or type of art, then they really should be able to help spot a fake.  Maybe this won’t be an immediate gut reaction, based on seeing the work in person.  A careful appraiser does more than look, however.  As an appraiser goes through the process of coming to an informed opinion of value, doing a great deal of research, looking through catalogs raisonnĂ©, for example, and examining the provenance and documentation related to the work.  Done properly, an appraisal should at least raise a red flag in instances where the object later turns out to have been misattributed, or in other instances where the valuation would change if the collective understanding of the facts change.

Seen from this angle, then, an extraordinary assumption is well-named.  Anything an appraiser takes to be true should be subject to a rigorous inquiry.  It is the goal of this blog to uphold the high standard embedded in the concept of the extraordinary assumption.  Plus, I thought it was a cool name.