I spoke with someone recently who told me how they got all their appraisals for “free” at auction houses. What they got were not really appraisals but estimates of value.
An estimate by an auction house will likely only reflect what the auction house believes the seller will receive at auction. These sorts of “appraisals” are not good for insurance purposes and are not viable in court. Most art insurance policies rely on the retail replacement value, meaning the compensation would be for the retail value of an artwork, as opposed to the price at auction (which is usually lower than a retail value).
This article is by no means knocking auction houses, which have amazing experts and specialists, but it is important to understand that an auction house’s primary job is to sell art, and offering a free estimate is one way to draw in business.
If you go to an auction house and are not serious about selling with them but merely attaining a value this is probably not the best option for you. Although auction houses have a considerable amount of information at their disposal, they rarely have time to conduct extensive research into an artwork that is not being consigned to them. A free estimate is not necessarily giving your artwork the time and attention it deserves.
The case of Ravenna v. Christie's in 2001 is a good example of relying too heavily on a free estimate. Guido Ravenna sued Christie’s as a result of his wife’s meeting with an Old Master Specialist at Christie’s in New York after she was given mistaken information about the provenance of the painting. The Old Master’s specialist, after only seeing photographs of the work during their short meeting, valued it at between $10,000 to $15,000, as he thought it appeared to be the work of minor 17th Century Italian painter, Nuvolone. Ravenna, then sold the work for $40,000 to a dealer who only months later consigned the work to Christie’s.
This is where it gets a little sticky. After the painting was examined again, it was determined to be a work not by Nuvolone but rather by Italian Baroque painter Ludovico Carracci, who is far more significant. The Lamentation, as it was renamed, was sold at auction in 2000 for $5,227,500 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where it now resides. Ouch.
Heritage Auctions does a good job of explaining how auction house appraisals/estimates work:
“Usually, the request for an "appraisal" actually refers just to an evaluation for the potential value of an item through auction or private sale… Heritage regularly provides quick and free evaluations of the current market value of art or collectibles. This is in the form of a verbal or written auction estimate — the range of value that one would expect to see the item sell for in today's auction market. This valuation is not intended for use as a formal appraisal or for any purposes of establishing a value for insurance, tax, estate planning, collateral or third party transactions.” (Heritage Auctions - Defining Appraisals)
If you want to divest an artwork quickly, auction houses are the way to go. But if you are serious about finding out about the value of something you own, make sure you get an authentic written appraisal from a USPAP certified appraiser.