by Elin Lake Ewald, Ph.D., ASA
For the first time in your professional career you have been asked to respond to a proposal solicitation for an appraisal from a national corporation (or a private family group or a regional cultural institution). You have a solid but modest appraisal practice, have worked primarily with individuals, local banks and businesses, and you don't know how to begin to respond to what at first appears to be an overwhelming challenge.
You have no idea how many others also received this solicitation, the exact purpose of the appraisal and therefore the type of value, or what material the assignment is to cover. The letter simply states: "The Blank and Blank (hereafter B&B) Corporation is soliciting pricing information for collections management services of the company's holdings of art and antiques. Your organization has been selected to receive a formal Request for Proposal (RFP). A contract will be awarded to provide collections management expertise. B&B's main office is in New York, with subsidiary offices in Chicago, IL, Park City, UT, Rizzoli, MI, and Compo, TX." (Don't look for these last two on a map; they don't exist.)
Information on the history of your firm, similar jobs completed, and the education and experience of your firm's members is requested. "The deadline for the solicitation is ten days from receipt of this RFP. The due date for the appraisal will be six weeks after the contract has been signed. All correspondence should be addressed to: Gladys Martin, Facilities Manager, GM@BBCorp.Com."
Shock and Awe
After fifteen years of extremely hard work building an appraisal business, dealing with often cranky and more often demanding private clients, you see the light at the end of the tunnel – an opportunity to expand and step up to the next level in the field, a corporate notch on your professional belt. After a few minutes of seeing yourself covered in corporate pinstripes, marching through the halls of B&B, dispensing advice on a Chippendale chest in authoritative tones, reality strikes.
How will you get from your office in St. Louis to Rizzoli, MI, wherever that is, to Compo Somewhere and then? Your head is spinning and you wonder whether it even makes sense to consider responding to the offering. After downing two extra strong cafe lattes you pull yourself together to figure out your strategy.
1) Networking. You can contact fellow ASA members in the cities and towns mentioned in the RFP, with the idea of working together on the project, or
2) You can find out how many items are in each office and, if there are only a few, besides New York, you could suggest appraising by photograph. Would flying or driving to each location make economic sense – to the corporation and to you?
3) You can sit down and write a letter to Ms. Martin with the questions that must be answered before you can even begin to respond to the RFP.
You opt for #3
"Dear Ms. Martin:
It was with great pleasure (and a lot of confusion) that my firm (already I'm becoming an appraisal giant) received your RFP (I'm a fast read on corporate jargon) and we shall be happy to respond once certain questions have been answered by your department (hope Facilities knows appraisal jargon).
1. Would you please indicate whether B&B Corporation desires the appraisal to be done for purposes of fair market value (secondary, resale or auction), or for replacement value (gallery, shop, store at retail)?
2. In order to plan location visits, would you list the number and type of the art and antiques at each site? For instance, fourteen paintings, two antique furnishings, etc.
3. What is the total number of items in the overall collection?
4. Is the appraiser expected to generate his/her own computer program? What information does B&B wish to be included in the appraisal or should the appraiser make that recommendation based on prior experience in similar appraisals?
5. Photography is not mentioned in the proposal. Does B&B anticipate that the appraiser will produce digital photographs, slides, or still photos of all, any or selected items in the collection? Do these photographs already exist?
6. If there are only a few items in some of the satellite offices, would it be acceptable to B&B if the appraiser used photographs (taken by B&B in the individual offices) on which to base his/her appraisal just for those offices?
7. Will special arrangements have to be made to obtain access to the offices of B&B?
8. Is there a preference for formatting? Database chart form or formal format?
9. Are the works of art and the antiques easily accessible? Are there off-site locations in which some items are held, such as storage spaces or warehouses?
10. Is the appraiser expected to unwrap or rewrap items in storage units? If so, will B&B offices provide required materials?
11. Will B&B provide an art handler to remove wall-hung paintings or to move furniture, if necessary?
12. Will you require condition information together with the other data in the appraisal?
13. Is it possible to extend the six-week completion deadline to three months?
14. Would it be possible to inform us as to approximately the number of RFPs that have been sent to appraisers?
That last question is a sleeper. If you are fortunate, Ms. Martin, after responding to all other questions, takes pity and tells you that fifty requests have been sent to one appraiser in each state, you will have to consider the odds. Should you spend the better part of a week putting together your response? You're a one-person business with a part-time secretary/bookkeeper. Even if you got the job, could you possibly complete the work in six weeks?
Ms. Martin's answer is that the six-week deadline is absolute. Unfortunately, Ms. Martin does not know exactly how many items there are in the collection, but states that they are "in excess of 1,000." She says that approximately three-fourths of the collection is in New York, with the remainder scattered. Photographs would be acceptable for any office with less than 10 items, but if there are more, they must be personally inspected. You live in St. Louis. Whew!
What To Do?
Even with the help of a dozen fellow appraisers in the area of the satellite offices, and even teamed with another senior appraiser to undertake the main office appraisal, the request from B&B can only be considered unrealistic. There is no way an appraiser can seriously consider adhering to the proposal as set forth and still accomplish a credible valuation, yet there are organizations who still send out RFPs not unlike the hypothetical one we have given.
Professional appraisers, in my opinion, should band together in some way to get across to the managers in these organizations that providing legitimate appraisals requires as much time as would be allowed other service providers that the company uses – such as attorneys, accountants, even public relations campaigners. In other words, if we hold ourselves out to be professionals, we should expect clients to treat us as professionals, not as pizza deliverymen. But responding in some form and in a thoughtful manner might just possibly have an impact on those who read your response.
In my opinion, a single practitioner, or for that matter a multi-person firm, would be ill-advised to rush into answering this request as it stands, but it might be worthwhile to answer it in another way – leaving the door open for a possible re-think on the part of the corporation.
What Makes You Special?
In your response you might consider mentioning some of the more interesting assignments you have had. Explain the unusual problem that had to be solved and how you went about solving it. Mention how many items and the types of art or furnishings were involved. If you can't brag about the big jobs you've done for other corporations, you can explain how tricky and difficult certain particular jobs were that you successfully completed.
Discuss your formal education and your continuing education courses, the seminars you have attended and other relevant education you have received that add to your credentials. Organizations also like to know your technical expertise: What kind of office equipment do you have? Computers? Printers? DSL line? Internet access? etc. Describe your library. What auction catalogs or art/antiques magazines do you subscribe to? What professional organizations do you belong to? And don't forget to provide a list of satisfied clients.
In your statement you might want to explain what goes into a replacement value appraisal and how much time it takes, the galleries or stores that must be contacted to obtain insurance values, and the necessity to sometimes repeat requests for information half a dozen times before receiving that information. You could explain what you have to do when an artist lacks representation or auction records, and how much time it might take to track down the value of an artwork that may turn out to be under $1,000.
If you are not going to make a formal proposal but wish to remain on file with the corporation for possible future assignments, make this clear in your letter. You want to leave the reader with the impression that, although you do not believe you can give them what they want in the amount of time they want it, you are certainly capable of providing them with excellent appraisals within reasonable time constraints and would look forward to working with their (whatever corporate services named) at a future date.
Having been the recipient of dozens of corporate RFPs over the years, I constantly wonder about who writes these bid packages. On at least two occasions elaborately detailed corporate bids were responded to at length by at least a dozen appraisers called in for the bid. This was followed by a half-day walk-through and then by complete silence. A year later I bumped into people making the request and was told that the company had decided not to proceed with the appraisal.Another time the corporate contact failed to return numerous telephone calls and letters asking for a decision. Again, I bumped into the corporate counsel unexpectedly at a meeting two years later only to find out that the appraisal had been shelved indefinitely. Yet no one who had participated had been notified.
Another proposal sent around to a number of appraisers was written like an actuarial table, with expectations that as more work was done, the cost to do it would decrease proportionately. (And then, I figured, when the job was completed, the appraiser would pay the corporation for having allowed him to do the work.)
Sometimes more is less. I hate to see gobs of written detritus spilling over pages when half that amount would have explained twice as much. However, I have learned that in the world of appraising, it matters how you present your credentials.
In court, for example, it's important to clearly articulate your professional experience and mention specific important cases in which you have been the lead appraiser. In presenting yourself to a corporate entity it is equally crucial to let them know more about yourself and your work than your natural diffidence might incline you. You know who you are and what you have done, but the other fellow doesn't necessarily. Sometimes that other fellow happens to be an international conglomerate.
One final note. Perhaps it should be mentioned that it is important to ask about low bid. When a corporation leaves the decision-making to a relatively low level employee other than the art curator, for instance – the matter of low bid may determine who gets the job, despite excellent credentials and a persuasive proposal from the appraiser. If possible, try and find out from the person sending out the bids if low bid is something at the top of his or her list. With federal requests,low bids are very significant. It varies with corporations.
If the person or persons are not familiar with the difference between the presentation of one appraiser and another, low bid will probably take the day. With someone more knowledgeable and discerning, it will not be of such significance – unless your bid is so vastly out of line with that of the others. It's always helpful, when possible, to have a walk-through on the company's premises in order to get an idea of how much time will probably be spent by the appraiser(s) on site. Then figure out how much research and report compilation time will be needed. When you come to a final figure you might want to add a ten percent contingency fee. There will always – and I can guarantee that word always – be a reason why you'll need that ten percent before you finish the job. Best of luck, fellow appraisers!
Wish list: it's growing, and now I see the need for a pamphlet that provides corporations nationwide with information that gives definitions of the different values, what is needed in the appraisal of the art/antiques collection of a major (or minor)corporation, and what a corporation, wanting to undertake an inventory/appraisal, should be looking for in a professional appraiser or professional appraisal firm. This should be an outreach project that also serves as a public relations tool for ASA. (Do I hear a second?)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elin Lake Ewald, ASA, is president of O'Toole-Ewald Art Associates, Inc. of New York City. Established in 1932, O'Toole-Ewald is one of the oldest and most respected personal property appraisal firms in the country, with a wide variety of services and a distinguished list of clients.