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September 28, 2013

The art of the appraisal explained by one who knows

By June Dzialo
The Daily Star

---- — So often in this column my co-writer, Brittany, and I talk about how art is everywhere and can be appreciated by all. Perhaps because of my passion for everyday art, there is one part of the art world I just cannot grasp — art appraisal. How can you put a value on something so seemingly subjective? So, I set out to learn more about this industry.

Sylvia Leonard Wolf, an art appraiser for 36 years from Bearsville with an extensive resume that includes the Metropolitan and Guggenheim museums, graciously answered many of my questions about the industry via email. My interview with her follows:

Q: How would you define “art appraisal?” 

A: Art appraisal is an estimate of the value of a work of art, based on sales of comparable works in the open retail and/or auction market, with no undue pressure to buy or sell and all parties having access to all pertinent data (the definition of “fair market value”).

Q: What are the main factors that determine the value of a piece? 

A: Honestly, to completely answer this question would require hours; however, in brief:

• reputation, recognition and market status of the artist

• subject matter

• medium and size

• condition of the piece

• exhibition history and provenance of the work

• current popularity and interest in the artist, type and style of the work (in other words, tastes change and the market changes with them)

Q: What is something someone off the street wouldn’t think to look at, which actually plays a large factor in art appraisal? 

A: The history of prior ownership (provenance), condition, medium and a clear title.

Q: Why get artwork appraised?

A: To know its current value for insurance purposes, to anticipate how much to expect from the sale of the work, to donate it to a charitable institution, estate planning, equitable distribution (a divorce situation), or to satisfy your curiosity about something you own. 

Q: How imperative is art appraisal for insurance purposes? 

A: If a work of art or valuable object isn’t insured — “named” separately in a fine art insurance replacement policy — it will often not be covered in the event of a loss claim for any reason, such as theft or damage.

Q: What types of artwork should people have appraised?

A: A knowledgeable appraiser will be able to judge if a piece of art or an object has “reasonable” value. Works of art purchased from reputable galleries should be re-appraised every five to 10 years, and not by the gallery that sold the work, because one should obtain an “unbiased” opinion from someone with no vested interest in the value of the item. If someone typically buys works of art costing thousands of dollars each, a purchase of a few hundred wouldn’t normally warrant being appraised. However, if the amount is larger than what the buyer normally spends, the axiom “better safe than sorry” should be heeded.

Q: How would you recommend someone find a trustworthy appraiser? 

A: Check with the national appraisal associations (Appraisers Association of America, American Society of Appraisers), or ask a local museum for a recommendation. The appraisal industry has, and still is developing, national standards of professional appraisal practice. I would only recommend engaging an appraiser whose credentials can be verified, who is known to have integrity and high ethical standards based on their established client base, and who is affiliated with a nationally recognized organization. No matter what, always make sure the appraiser is qualified to appraise the type of object you want to have appraised. In other words, if you want to know about the value of a pair of European silver candlesticks you inherited from your family, you should ask a decorative arts dealer or appraiser. If it’s an 18th-century print, you would ask someone familiar with prints from that period, and obviously, not a jeweler. It’s common sense, but beware of the average “antiques store” owner who claims to know everything about everything. The best appraisers will let you know what they are NOT qualified to appraise, and will help direct you to the best person to render an opinion.

June Dzialo is a member of ArtsOtsego, the alliance of Otsego County arts organizations, and marketing director for The Glimmerglass Festival. Column ideas and questions may be sent to For more Around the Arts columns, visit