SELLING: How can I get top dollar and feel good about where it’s going?

My Cousin Bernie/Aunt Ralph/Pet Crow Seymour was a Collector/Antiques Dealer/Bartender at the Cedar Tavern/Member of the French-Polish-Saudi-Japanese-Make-That-With-Sauerkraut Aristocracy and I have some Real Treasure here. Can you help me sell these things for the Vast Amount of Money I Deserve, so I can Retire and Live Happily Ever After? Or will you try to steal my Treasure?

Dr. Siegel has not seen your treasure, but understands that this subject may make you feel anxious and suspicious. A purpose of this FAQ is to introduce you to ideas about how to find out about authenticity and value of objects, so you can do this work yourself. If you really and truly need this to be secret, because the entire world population of thieves and their minions will be donning black outfits and shimmying up your chimney to steal it, there are ways for you to research on your own. See the instructions below about valuation.

Go slowly and carefully. It’s easy for someone new to appraisal to lift a chunk of plastic and think it’s gold, to touch polyester and mistake it for cashmere, to look at a poster and be certain it’s an original art work. Likewise, relatives and friends sometimes need to think objects are valuable for psychological reasons too complex to unpack here. Forgive them, and find out the truth. Look really closely under a magnifying glass at your treasured “Picasso.” If the print is made up of dots, you’ve got a poster. That’s nice for your wall, but it probably has little or no value. (Some old posters can have value. So don’t toss it. Instead, do your homework.)

Finally, you may have something of value. People find remarkable things every day. Just don’t lose your head. Come back down to earth, roll up your sleeves, and do a lot of research. We know that wealthy people who stay wealthy stay in the neighborhoods where they grew up, drive used cars and clip coupons. They keep their feet on the ground and are kind to their neighbors.

If you don’t have the time or energy to do this kind of research yourself, hire a certified fine and decorative art appraiser.  You can find one on the American Society of Appraiser’s Website.  PLEASE NOTE:  Dr. Siegel is not a member of this organization and receives no compensation for this recommendation.

But know ahead of time: appraisal work is expensive. Appraisers charge by the hour, and it can take a lot of time to do this research. You can do the research yourself to make sure a work is authentic, and you can get an idea of its value. Dr. Siegel has done her best here on this website to show you how.

But I saw on Antiques Roadshow that….

Antiques Roadshow is staged. It is a fictional entertainment, and it’s really entertaining. In real life, most experts do not have dollar values ready to spout upon seeing an object. They have to do research, ask questions, inspect thoroughly, and sometimes go to a library for information.

How do I find an appraiser?

There are groups of appraisers who can refer you to one in your area. You can look these groups up on the web. They include The American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America. Dr. Siegel earned a certificate in Fine and Decorative Art Appraisal through a program at Pratt Institute taught by members of these groups, and some people were excellent teachers. If you get three referrals from those groups, that’s probably your best option. Interview several, check their references, and pick one you like. (Dr. Siegel is not a member of either of those groups.)

The leading auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, at the time of this writing, will offer free estimates of what they think your art will sell for at auction. Those can be helpful. Some auction houses have appraisal days, where you can bring your stuff by for an estimate. If the auction house has a reputation for honesty, good work, and fair dealing, that can be worthwhile.

However, one problem is that rarely will an appraiser or an auction house specialist say, “I don’t know.” They should say that more often and refer you to experts on the work in question, or seek out those experts themselves. Please be careful regardless of whom you choose, and—again—check references thoroughly.

The top appraisers and people at the top galleries and the top auction houses are often extraordinarily well educated and informed about art. They also make real, serious mistakes when estimating the value of a work. If that makes you uneasy, good! You should feel nervous. Again, art is not like common stock where every share is the same. Every art work is different. Unless you enjoy that uncertainty or can tolerate it, you should not invest in art.

Never hire an appraiser without getting a prior estimate in writing from the appraiser about what the appraisal will cost. The appraiser may want to do a brief preliminary examination of the work before providing the estimate.

This advice may be obvious: be present in the room when the appraiser examines work.

How does an appraiser charge?

If an appraiser charges by a percentage of the value, that should raise a red flag. That’s a conflict of interest. Do not hire.

Likewise, if someone estimates a flat fee for the job without asking for and receiving data about the scope of the job–how many works are to be examined, what the works are made of, where they are located, what the works’ histories are and what sort of conditions the works are stored in–that should raise a red flag. Do not hire.

An appraiser should charge an hourly rate for their time. Get an estimate prior to hiring this person.

You need to be able to tell them how much art there is, what kind of art it is, what its size and relative condition is, how it is stored, and how it is accessible.

If there are any dangerous conditions regarding the work, such as mold, or water damage, you should let the appraiser know ahead of time.

Again, depending on the amount of work to be done, and the circumstances, the appraiser may need to see it prior to giving an estimate.

Can’t I just ask the artist what the work is worth?

Strangely enough, you probably should not ask the artist. Or if you do, use that information as just one data point among several. Do not weight it heavily.

You want public records of sales. Why? The “artist,” of a painting just made with mother’s chopped liver can say it is worth a million dollars, but unless you see canceled checks and invoices showing someone was willing to spend that, it’s just the person’s fantasy life galloping away.

(However, it is important to note that there are some very valuable works made out of materials such as elephant dung, crashed cars, used tires, blood, and urine. Dr. Siegel does not suggest you buy them, she is just providing data.)

How do I figure out the approximate value of an artwork? I want to have a rough idea before I go to an appraiser, a dealer or an auction house what my art might be worth.

In the art world, like in real estate, you find out what comparable things have sold for. It depends on many factors including condition, size, age, how saturated the market is, and whether there’s someone who’s interested in that particular work. Please bear in mind that every unique work of art is different, so the price you see for what looks like comparable work probably is not the price you should ask, or that you can get for your work. It’s going to be either more or less. Sometimes, valued art and artifacts can be better sold at auction, sometimes through a gallery. Sometimes, if they are hard to sell, but valuable, you are better off donating and taking the tax deduction. Always talk with your accountant about what this stuff means to your bottom line.

If you want to figure out for yourself what your stuff may be worth, there are two possible professional sources for art prices: Art Dealers and Auction Houses.

Art dealers are famous for being secretive about prices. The magazine Art in America has an annual guide to what galleries represent what artists. You can find that magazine probably at your local library. It usually comes out in late summer. They’re better on contemporary artists…  When looking for best value, you can ask the gallery that represents the artist (in the Art in America guide) what they can get for the work. Anyone who’s giving you an estimate will want to see good clear photographs of the work (back and front), close-up shots of any damage, and will want any provenance data you have (records of how it was acquired, who owned it in the past, where, if anywhere, the work has been exhibited and if it has been featured in any publications. Be honest. Don’t make stuff up.) Even though there is a law in New York City that galleries have to make price lists available for art in a show, many do not. This law is not enforced. You may get the runaround from a gallery when you are seeking an estimate of value.

That is why auction “results” have come to be seen as a more helpful indicator. Auction results are public. If you are in the New York metropolitan area, and if you want a free guide to how much work by a particular artist, e.g. Pierre Bonnard or Gustave Caillebotte, has sold for at auction, you can go to the Frick Museum library and use art auction aggregator websites free of charge. If your local university has an art appraisal program, often they will allow the public free access to the art auction values websites. (It’s worth a few phone calls to find out. Otherwise, many sites allow you to use their data for a one-day use fee.) The work’s value, as you know, depends on a lot of things: size, condition, subject matter, type of work, quality of work, and who had indigestion in the auction room that day. It could be that you could get a much higher price in the country or region where the artist lived (depending on the work). Thanks to the Frick, or your local college, you can then see who has done well with this artist, and how recently.  You can also see what particular sales by which houses might be better for this artist, and contact the auction people responsible for those sales. Again: If you want to pay for this service, there are several websites that are quite good.

For more information, please check out this Smithsonian website:

I am providing this data for you so if you want to do this work yourself, you can. If you think you need an appraisal for insurance purposes, or for the purposes of tax deduction, please talk with experts, such as your insurance broker, or your accountant about whether you need a professional appraisal.

Caveats regarding auction prices.

Even the top auction houses report art as sold that the high bidder never picks up or pays for. Some persons like to bid a lot of money for a work, get the newspaper coverage that highlights the high price, and then never pay for the work. They impress their business associates and friends, and it costs them nothing. The auction houses let them get away with it because it would be embarrassing if it were made public. (Don’t worry, you may be the only one who’s ever read this far down on the FAQs. Their secret is still safe.)

If I choose to sell at an auction, how can I guarantee I’ll get the top dollar for the art?

Some major auction houses now give “guarantees” for work sold–they will guarantee it will sell for a certain amount of money, or they’ll pay it to you in full.  Often then the two parties split any amount above the guarantee. If it’s a major work, auction houses will compete and offer you the highest guarantee ….

It’s a crap shoot. If there are two main collectors of this artist, but one is prepping for a colonoscopy that day, there may only be one bidder, and so you will not realize the gain you had hoped. That being said, the larger and more prestigious the auction, or the more appropriate the auction house is to your niche, the more likely you will find the best market.

Here’s some background data:

What is a reserve?

For most auctions, for any work of art, you can set a “reserve”– a price you agree to with the auction house prior to the auction, below which you are not willing to sell the art. At the time of this writing, reserves are confidential. The auction house will not disclose to the bidders what the reserve is. However, if you are at an auction, and the bidding for a piece stops at a certain amount, and the auctioneer says, “pass,” the bidding did not reach the reserve price. That means that after the auction, you the seller, take the work back home. And the work is called, “bought in,” which means it didn’t sell.

What does this term “burning” mean, when people are talking about art sales?

If you put a work up for sale at an auction, and no one buys it, then the work is called “burned.” It can become known as a work no one wants, and can become harder to sell. The art market is so “overheated” right now (there is so much buying and selling at inflated prices), that auction houses have simply been putting much “burned” work in the next auction at a lower estimate and selling it.

What do I need to send to an auction house or a gallery so that they can give a rough idea of value?

They will want pictures of front and back, plus pictures up close of any damage or any specific labels on the back to start. The major auction houses do not charge for this valuing service.

They will also want record of provenance data (any history you have documented of where the work has been and who has owned it. If it has been in any public exhibitions, by all means list them. That can add to the value of a work.)   Best to call first, reach the person in charge of the department, explain what you have, and then they’ll ask for images.

What are the risks associated with this? If the person who appraises is not an expert, their valuation may be inaccurate. Dr. Siegel has had direct experience of major auction houses being way off the mark. For example, a major auction house declared a portrait valueless and refused to auction it. The seller then sold it at a minor country auction for very little money. The buyers sold it to the National Portrait Gallery in the UK, where it now hangs as part of the permanent collection.

How do I figure out which auction house to contact to get values?

There are two top-tier prestige auction houses: Christie’s and Sotheby’s. If you look on their websites, you’ll find they have departments devoted to the major areas that art collectors collect in. Make an inquiry directly to the lead person at the appropriate area. As was just indicated, they are not perfect, but they are the best we have. If the work is not for them, they may be able to connect you with a more appropriate auction house.

Depending on who the artist is, there are also specialized auction houses that might do better than the big guns.

You can look online for the websites of these auction houses. Rago in Lambertville, New Jersey is very good with Arts-and-Crafts stuff—that is a shorthand term for early Twentieth Century work by American furniture makers such as Gustav Stickley and potters like Grueby. Heritage, which has offices in Texas, California and New York gets good prices for Americana, collectibles, and other things. They’re not as prestigious but they sometimes can sell work for much more money. Skinner Auctioneers in Boston can do well with New England artists and work with that theme. Swann Auction Galleries in New York can do well with prints and antique posters. They also have strong sales in works by African American artists. Over the years I’ve observed that Shannon’s in Connecticut seems to get ridiculous amounts of money for pretty, old-fashioned paintings that tell a story, what’s called narrative work.

Please do not rely on this website as more than a springboard for your research.

Contact more than one auction house because experts can vary widely in their estimates of value.

Check the references of any auction house you work with. If you are considering selling, ask for references to other sellers who have sold similar work with the auction house.

An auction house wants to sell the art I own. How do I get it there?

Ask the auction house to recommend and art packer and shipper in your area. Do not ever do this yourself.  It’s worth the cost to have it packed safely and insured completely. Insurance is critical in shipping.  It’s also not expensive.  On more than one occasion, Dr. Siegel has heard of art destroyed in transit, and the insurance settlement paid for the cost of the work.

It could be that depending on what the auction house expects to gross on it, you could get them to cover shipping and insurance, but often they insist you cover the cost.

I have a chance to buy an offset lithograph by Alexander Calder for no money.

I’m not sure what you mean by “no money,” but an offset lithograph is a poster. If you like it, get it, and you don’t have to worry about it.

It probably has no value. So “no money” is a good price.

I still don’t understand the difference between an original unique work and a limited-edition print.

A painting is usually one-of-a-kind. It is often painted with a paintbrush on a canvas or a board.

A limited-edition print is usually one of many of the same print made. Much of the time, it is printed on paper. The number made can vary from 5 prints to 1,000 or more. Artists sometimes create limited-edition prints to allow people who can’t afford one-of-a-kind art pieces to enjoy their work. Limited-edition prints are usually much less expensive than paintings. Artists also make prints because the process is interesting to them. For people who are starting to collect, limited-edition prints are often a good way to begin. Often the prints are numbered in pencil on the lower left. It looks like a fraction. So, if on the lower left it says 5/35, that means this is the fifth print of thirty-five printed. The first print is no more valuable than the tenth or twentieth. Sometimes the pencil mark says A.P. which is short for Artist’s Proof, which means this is a copy the artist made for herself or himself. An Artists Proof is no more or less valuable usually than a numbered work. It is customary for contemporary artists to sign the work on the lower right in pencil. However, that can vary.

Prints attributed to the most famous artists are often forgeries. Copy machines are extremely sophisticated and can make convincing forgeries. (There are now machines that can even print in thick ink and imitate the brush strokes of original paintings.) With regard to limited-edition prints, forgers often write A.P. on the forgeries so they don’t claim a number in the real edition that can be traced to a real existing print. A work that is neither numbered nor signed may well be a poster. A work that is “signed in the plate” means the print itself has a copy of the artist’s signature in it. That’s different from an artist actually signing the print after it is made.

Use a magnifying glass to look at any print you are considering buying. If the image is made up of tiny dots of red, green and blue, it is a poster, not a lithograph that was carved on a stone and then printed from that stone.

I was told this print was part of an “open edition.” That sounds important. What does it mean?

An open edition is one where the artist does not limit the number of prints being made. This kind of print usually has less value than a limited edition, where only a limited number of prints were made.

I see a Rembrandt etching in an auction catalog. I want it. I’ve fallen in love with it.

Do you see the words: “attributed to” “school of” “circle of” “after” or some other similar modifier near the word “Rembrandt”? That means it was made by someone other than Rembrandt. Have you looked at the work in person? Start by looking at the actual work, and see if it still looks wonderful to you.

You can learn a lot by looking at authenticated original works by artists like Rembrandt. Many major libraries and museums have collections of original prints and other artwork that you can see in person (even if the work is not on display) by making an appointment with the curator. Often you can use a search engine to find out who owns other prints of this work. If you live near the New York Public Library or a major museum, call up the print department and ask if it they can recommend where you can see a print in person. Be prepared to have your bag searched when entering and leaving the establishment, and be prepared to have an expert hovering over you and giving you white cotton gloves to wear as you look at the work. Ask questions, look closely, be careful, and if you have the urge to sneeze, please don’t sneeze on the art.

The auction results say, “Bought in”– what does that mean?

No one bought it.

The auction sale price listed is $925. How do auction houses make their money?

The auction houses usually charge both the buyer and the seller. Percentages vary depending on the value of the work and the value of the client to the auction house.

What you bid is not what you end up paying. You also pay tax, and a “buyer’s premium” which is the auction house’s profit on the sale from your purchase. That is often 25% of the price you bid added to the price you bid. The auction house also takes a percentage of the price bid from the seller.

I bid $100 at auction for a work of art, but they charged me over $130. What’s up with that?

The price you bid is not the price you pay. Remember, there is usually an added charge called “a buyer’s premium” which is usually 25% over what you bid. That’s the auction house’s profit from the buyer (they also collect from the seller). And then there’s tax charged on top of that, unless you are bidding on behalf of a non-profit organization.

How do I determine the quality of an artwork?

In the language of the art world, if you can find good work, you have an “Eye.”

When you buy fish at the market to cook for dinner, over time you learn that if the fish looks wet and plump and shiny, it may be fresher than fish that looks dull and dried out. Likewise with art, over time you learn about a specific artist’s work. Every artist’s work varies in quality because every work is different.