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What’s It Worth?

by Legacy Staff

Here’s how to determine if art works you’ve inherited — or want to bequeath to your loved ones — have value.

We all have fantasies of the secret score — that lottery ticket that wins big, the famous painting that was stored (and forgotten) in our parent’s attic, that tchotchke you bought at a flea market that turns out to be an original historic treasure, the inheritance you never expected from your long-lost uncle. I had a near miss with great fortune myself: Many years ago, I bought a “print” for $15 at an antiques auction that turned out to be an original work by Maxfield Parrish. Yay! Then it turned out I could not prove how it got from Parrish to me — that is called “provenance” — so its worth remained at $15. Bummer.

At POBA, we get dozens of requests to help folks determine whether their art works have value. Most often we are asked to value the worth of paintings, but we also receive inquiries about photographs, vinyl recordings, wood and textile works, and “3-D” works like sculptures or ceramics. The first question we ask folks to consider is this: what is it worth to determine the worth of that work?


This sounds like a circular question, but it is actually straightforward. Almost every object of beauty that may also have great value requires someone with expertise to confirm or vouch for that value. And that expertise costs money to obtain. So, it really is important to know how much, how far, and how long you will go to find out if a specific work or collection has value, and plainly, you will want to know if it has more value than you will spend to find out.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions we can make to help you decide this essential question.

The internet is your first and best friend in this process.

There are many steps you can take on your own to answer this question if you know three basic things: the name of the artist, whether the work you have is an original or a reproduction, and how you acquired the work.

With these bits of information in hand, the internet is a powerful tool that you can use on your own to ballpark the worth of your work. For example, you can find out if the artist who created your work has a “sales history” online. Information about physical or online auctions, website sales, or gallery representation can help you greatly. Many of the works we are asked to value take less than fifteen minutes of research: find the artist’s sales history, and you can often quickly determine whether the work you have has little or no value, or if it may be worth more serious valuation.

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Nothing in art valuation is for free, but some things are less expensive.

If your research on your own piques your curiosity but does not give you the specifics you need, then you may want professional help. One option is the “non-binding valuation.” Many art valuation services offer a low cost, “non-binding” assessment that will estimate the range of value that a particular work may have. The “non-binding” part is important, since certified appraisers that offer a full appraisal are bound to their valuations and liable for the relative accuracy of an appraisal. But they are not liable for non-binding valuations.

Often, this can prove to be a very valuable tool as a result, because by using this technique professional appraisers can give a reasonably good indication of whether a work has any worth through a low-risk, low cost process. Organizations such as POBA, MassArt, Saatchi and others offer these as online services, typically in the range of $150 to $200 per work. You will have to provide pictures and some limited specific information about the work, but typically once you have given this information, you can get a non-binding “ballpark” valuation in 4 to 7 business days. This can prove to be a good deal if your work is worth more than that.

If a work is important to you personally its worth may be more than financial.

A beloved work may not be a valuable work in dollar terms, but in terms of sentiment, personal or family history, or emotional impact on you, it may be priceless. If this turns out to be the case for you, love and treasure the work and leave it for others to determine what worth it may have at a later time. We are often not good at being objective about the objects (or people) we hold most dear.

If you still believe that you want to know the value of a work or collection after these steps, then seek the opinion of a certified independent appraiser.

POBA can help with this, as can many other organizations. Appraisals can run from modest to quite expensive, depending on the work of art, the research required, the documentation you have, and other factors. A professional will advise you quickly if the cost exceeds the potential value, so you can make a sound decision about whether to proceed. A great resource is the Appraisers Association of America — a 700-member strong organization of independent appraisers of fine arts. If you want to learn more about when and why it is useful to seek professional advice, take a look at POBA’s Tips on this topic.

POBA / Where The Arts Live is an online arts hub and resource center that displays, promotes, and preserves creative legacies; helps folks that own or manage a creative, arts, or historical legacy or collection to ensure these collections live on; and helps working artists to manage their own works for future preservation, viewing, and value.

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