I recently approached a very large, successful gallery for assistance with an appraisal of a work created by an artist they represent. After a decent interval, a polite reply came back:
I apologize for the delay. Please know we charge a flat fee of $500 with an additional charge of $250/hour for the preparation of an appraisal. Please let me know if you'd like to proceed.”
This is new. My experience has been that commercial art galleries are generally wary of appraisers but more often than not are happy to collaborate. In cases that they are not, what usually happens is that I am invited to send in the request and then I hear nothing back. The piece I was asking about is likely to retail for around $15,000; there is no way to justify spending 5% of its price just to have the gallery who represents the artist provide a valuation. The above reply is, of course, designed to discourage any future requests, except in the cases where objects have tremendous value. I must admit, it seemed (and felt) like a slap.
This is a free country and commercial art galleries are in business to make profits. They are under no obligation to provide me with free service. Indeed, many dealers have complained to me that they expend time and effort giving appraisers valuations for free, and then the appraiser (they think) simply turns around and bills the client after cutting and pasting the information into a template and referencing the gallery as the authoritative opinion. Having worked in galleries for over 20 years and having owned one myself, I confess to sharing this attitude. Most gallerists have stories about obnoxious phone calls from appraisers demanding immediate assistance, followed by a volley of intrusive follow up questions and desperate emails referencing their looming deadlines. I have my own stories: there was one appraiser who was unable to properly pronounce the artist’s name they were asking about and in another case an appraiser asked for a copy of a recent invoice to provide back-up for an appraisal she was preparing, telling/scolding me that my own opinion was not sufficient for her purposes. I suppose it goes without saying that these people are usually unknown to the gallery prior to contact and never heard from again.
So, really, professional appraisers today are paying for the sins of their fathers (and mothers). I’d like to think that the profession is changing for the better and that these encounters are much less likely to occur in the present day. But the demand for $750 before lifting a finger demonstrates that some galleries are in no mood to accommodate us.
Let’s stop right here and acknowledge that appraisers need galleries more than galleries need appraisers. I am aware, of course, that professional appraisers are integral to the wellbeing of modern society. Without our fiercely independent and ethical input, all commerce would be impossible. And yes, I know that galleries have an obligation to the marketplace, they should want the proper values for their artists’ works to be known by people who own the work. Blah blah blah.
In truth, galleries of contemporary art hold most of the cards when it comes to their artists’ markets, and that’s the way it should be. Galleries expend an incredible amount of time, money and energy on behalf of their program, mounting shows, doing art fairs, assisting collectors, curators, critics, publishing books and so on. Dealers work their fingers to the bone on behalf of their artists and then we come along and ask, “How much?”
Appraisers need to be incredibly respectful of the work that they do. I can’t overstate this. An insurance appraisal from a gallery should be received as if one was getting communion from a bishop or some of the best Halloween candy ever. Granted, I wish that the big fancy gallery that refused to help me was more beneficent towards the little guy, but then again, I have viewed countless fantastic shows at that gallery, for free, and can go in and read the books they have on display for as long as I like. They expend considerable resources every day to create economic activity which makes the art world a big enough place to require appraisers. I can’t complain.
So, what can an appraiser do to coax an opinion of value from the expert dealer? Bribery is always an option. Naturally, most of us can’t afford the $750 demanded by the anonymous gallerist I have been referencing, but I always like to give a small gift to the person who has gone out of their way to respond to my requests. Doesn’t have to be much. But something that shows them that you appreciate the time and effort they have expended on your behalf. I like to find things that can be shared amongst the staff, if that person so chooses (a box of chocolates, for example). This assumes, however, that the appraiser has already been helped…what can we do in advance to help our cause?
Work. Which I know is not really a glamorous word. But before we pick up the phone, send an email or walk into a gallery, we appraisers need to have done our homework. Go to the gallery’s website to see if they have similar works by the artist displayed. Look at the exhibitions for that artist…perhaps there are installation shots which depict our object on display? Troll through the CV of the artist and read the press that might be easily accessed. Go to the library and pull books. Maybe go to the gallery without asking for anything and see if they have any publications or maybe a binder around about the artist that you can look at. In short, according to USPAP, you are holding out yourself as having expertise in the material you are appraising. Be one. A lot of questions that appraisers have can be answered by consulting freely available information. Contacting the gallery should be the last thing we do, not the first.
Armed with knowledge, the appraiser becomes less of an annoyance and more of a collaborator. One can call the gallery with a specific question, rather than many. I would also recommend telling the gallery what you think the value might be and why. Gallerists enjoy discussing their artists work, so if you actually have a specific, intelligent question and are not looking to cut corners, you might find a more sympathetic ear.
Information is another powerful carrot the appraiser can proffer. You should ask your client if they would feel comfortable with your sharing their name with the galleries you contact. Naturally, they might wish to remain anonymous, and it might not be appropriate. However, most clients don’t mind and in fact, already have a relationship with these galleries. When the dealers know that you are working for someone who buys from them, they are likely to be much more friendly. Obviously, the more mercenary among us will think that galleries want to know who owns what in order to be able to sell it one day. But there is nothing wrong with that! And, on a gentler note, they might want to borrow it for an exhibition at their gallery or at a museum down the road. Having the existence and ownership of the work in the gallery archives can facilitate all sorts of positive things.
If you have done a lot of research into the market, you can share the relevant bits with the dealer. While they probably already know what is out there, it never hurts to see it condensed and organized. Maybe you have seen works by private dealers for sale, where you can report the asking price. You may actually have turned up something that they didn’t know, which will help them in their business.
I would be very interested to know if any of my fellow appraisers have other tactics for overcoming the inherent suspicion of us harbored by primary market dealers. Finding common ground with them is one of the biggest challenges faced by appraisers. In truth, we have only ourselves to blame for the often dysfunctional relationship. But the top appraisers have always found a way to make themselves an indispensible part of the art world. We need to make smooth relations the rule and not the exception.