Art Advisors and Appraisers


Art & Finance

The Myth of the Omniscient Appraiser


When hiring an appraiser, it’s important that the client understand the personal property appraiser’s role so that she can proceed with realistic expectations about the role and responsibilities of her service. However, the popular and very entertaining television program, Antiques Roadshow, has spawned the myth of the omniscient appraiser who can and will rattle off impressive, esoteric facts about any work of art and the artists themselves. These seemingly all-knowing Roadshow experts frequently opine about the authenticity of the object and confidently announce a valuation figure for the piece within a three-minute TV “bit”. This phenomenon has created unreasonable expectations among people who hire personal property appraisers.

Antiques Roadshow is unintentionally deceptive in that, because of tight time constraints, it can’t show you before the camera rolls that:

1. Multiple assistants typically from art galleries or auction houses cumulatively conduct hours of internet research on the object, which is often why the Roadshow expert filmed knows so much about the piece.

2. The Antiques Roadshow expert usually does not give a valuation quote off the top of his head but rather, behind the scenes, he has consulted multiple subscription-based, online sales results on multiple auction history databases.

3. The Antiques Roadshow “expert” is frequently unfamiliar with the type, style or artist when the piece is first presented. If the piece excites the expert’s curiosity, she then enlists the aid of assistants who research the item to help her become an “expert” about it in a short time.

4. The Antiques Roadshow “expert” frequently opines about the authenticity of pieces being displayed. On the other hand, rarely will a qualified appraiser certify that a work of art is authentic. This is the role of a separate authenticator who works in a much different discipline. The above notwithstanding, an appraiser might see something suspicious in the work to suggest that it’s not genuine, but she then continues to appraise the work based upon expressly-stated “extraordinary assumption” that the item is genuine.

5. The public operates under the popular misconception that the Antique Roadshow “expert” provides on-the-spot appraisal reports for artwork. In truth, however, the “expert” merely provides a “quick and dirty” valuation service, not an appraisal. If you listen carefully to Antiques Roadshow “experts”, they’re careful never to call themselves appraisers and never characterize their off-the-cuff valuation opinion as an appraisal report. An appraisal report is a legal document having serious financial consequences for third parties, such as insurers, charitable institutions that accept in-kind donations, art purchasers and the federal government to name a few. At a minimum, real appraisal reports take hours, and sometimes many days to complete. Federally qualified appraisers, unlike the Antiques Roadshow “experts” who give on-the-spot valuation guesses, are liable for damages to the client for her negligence and liable to the Federal Government for stiff penalties for making substantially over or understatements of value. 

What should you expect from your appraiser when she arrives at your house? First, don’t ask the appraiser for a ballpark guess as to value. Values fluctuate according to auction results. It’s akin to being, say, a tax lawyer. Tax laws and regulations change regularly, and substantial errors can be made by practicing law from memory and not consulting the latest regulations. Similarly, costly online subscriptions to auction sales must be consulted and market trends extrapolated since even a few recent sales can cause values to rise or fall dramatically.

Second, it is technically unethical for an appraiser to answer questions pertaining to her assignment until her research and appraisal report are complete. It is also unethical for an appraiser to give tentative, off-the-cuff opinions of value or comment on special features of technique or construction. (And don’t forget, appraisers typically work by the hour, and we try to be judicious about not wasting our client’s money by chatting). Additionally, it is quite common for an appraiser to be unfamiliar with a specific artist but nevertheless feel confident that she can learn enough about the artist through independent study, thereby enabling her to give credible valuation results. If, on the other hand, the appraised object requires special education or expertise, such as in high-end jewelry, the appraiser will often take the assignment but must tell the client that she is working in the capacity as the principal appraiser and must retain additional appraisers in order to evaluate the jewelry. In this regard, a good appraiser who has contacts with many specialized appraisers acts like a general contractor, taking the burden off your shoulders of searching and vetting appraisers in multiple artistic or mechanical disciplines. Arcadia Art Consultancy enjoys working with specialist appraisers around the country and routinely retains them so that their opinions of value are incorporated into the main body of the appraisal report.

Finally, and most importantly, there are two types of appraisals that are most common. The first is a formal appraisal report in which third parties are identified as the persons or entities who will rely on the report. This type of report is the most common. It takes several hours to many days to prepare formal appraisal reports documented with comparison photographs of comparable sales together with auction and gallery sales data. Appraisal reports are always written and are highly structured, containing a litany of representations, assumptions, and disclosures mandated by the federal Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice. Formal appraisal reports must be prepared in accordance with the standard of care employed by a qualified USPAP appraiser. That appraiser is potentially liable to the client and to identified users of the report if the appraiser is negligent by failing to present credible results. Occasionally, a client will want an appraisal just for herself, and in such cases, oral or a much shorter written summation of the appraisal may be submitted. However, when such informal appraisals are provided, the client may never represent to a third party that it was prepared with it in mind.