An Appraiser’s Tips for Artists

An Appraiser’s Tips for Artists

A follow up to Alla Prima’s Rules for Buying Original Art . . . An Appraiser’s Tips for Artists.

1. Be consistent in your published pricing whether you sell through a gallery, at an art fair or through your website. Your credibility will suffer if you don’t.

See how a former South Dakota artist, Bryan Holland, now in St. Peter, MN, features work from his studio for sale alongside artwork available in a gallery on his website. This consistency and collaboration with his gallery is good business. (Picking on Bryan because I recently appraised some of his work.)

2. Don’t judge art buyers by their appearance. I have walked through seven-figure properties full of kitsch and the next day seen impressive, high value original art in trailer homes.

3. You’re known by the company that you keep. Be aware of your “comparables”—that is, artists with a similar style and subject matter at a similar level in their career who sell in a similar geographic market. Appraisers use a spectrum of data to value artwork—whether you like it or not, it will include your own work as well as that of comparable artists or artworks the appraiser deems relevant.

4. Be judicious about giving your artwork away. Sales data from fundraising auctions can’t be used to determine the Fair Market Value of your work. Plus, you can’t deduct the Fair Market Value of your artwork from your taxes when you donate—the IRS only allows you to deduct the cost of your materials.

James Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871) popularly referred to as “Whistler’s Mother” is considered by many to be the most significant American artwork that resides outside the US. It’s also a REALLY big painting–right about 5 feet on each side. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

5. Title your artwork. If you don’t, someone else will and you might not like it. I have inventoried many an artwork as “Unknown: Pink Abstract” [you fill in the blank of the dominant color].  It doesn’t have to be fancy. Whistler’s most famous painting (now known popularly as “Whistler’s Mother”) is actually titled Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1.  Not an exciting title, but a tremendous painting.

6. Sign it. SOMEWHERE . . . on the actual work (the back is fine—just be sure it is on the artwork, not the stretcher bar or framing). Don’t open the door for someone else to take credit for your work. People take unsigned hand-created work and add signatures to it to make a buck. It’s not cool, but it happens.  (Ever hear of disbarred attorney and convicted felon Ken Walton? Yikes.)

7. Photograph and inventory your art before it goes to a new home. It doesn’t need to be professional photography—use your cell phone.  If you’re like Jackson Pollock, you’re lucky enough to have someone do this for you. His wife, Lee Krasner, was fastidious tracking and recording his work which is one reason he is the art historic behemoth he is today. Plus, this leaves a fantastic digital trail for your kids and grandkids when you stop creating.

An Appraiser’s Rules for Buying Original Art

An Appraiser’s Rules for Buying Original Art

When it comes to buying art for your home or business, here are some rules to get started: 

 1. Buy art you love.


I bought the piece above for a variety of reasons–it is visually interesting with its casual and spontaneous tone, the colors are fresh, light and lovely (they don’t translate well in the photo–especially with the glare, sorry), it was created by an artist who is a force in the local art nonprofit scene, and it came beautifully matted with a hand-built frame.

Maybe this means it makes you think. You like the colors. You respect the artist. It reminds you of someone or some place you love. Art is generally a very illiquid asset; unless you have a high level of comfort navigating the art market, don’t buy it for investment purposes. Buy it because it moves you somehow.


  1. Keep a paper trail. 

Start a file on your art–keep the artist’s or gallery’s business card and a receipt for your purchase in it. Add receipts for framing, brochures from gallery shows the artist is in, news articles about him/her, notes you have exchanged, etc. This paper trail helps establish the “provenance” or history of ownership of your art. This comes in handy if you opt to sell or donate it down the road.


  1. Make sure it is signed—or otherwise documented.

Although artists signing their artwork is a relatively modern phenomenon in art history (dating back to the Renaissance), it is now commonplace and often expected, as it helps with identification and serves as testimony to the original, hand-created nature of the art. If you have a choice between signed and unsigned work by an artist—go for the signed. The location of the signature (back, front, along the wrapped canvas, etc.) isn’t as important as its presence somewhere. If the artist deliberately chooses not to sign an artwork, respect his/her decision. Ask for a letter of authenticity instead.


  1. Take care of it.

Display it somewhere out of direct sunlight and unusual humidity or dryness (if it is in the sunlight, get it under UV protected glass). Unless you’re striving for museum standards, most art is comfortable with the same indoor climate as we are—68-75 degrees, humidity in the 40-55% range. Also, be sure it is accounted for in the personal property coverage of your renter’s or homeowner’s insurance. If something happens to it, you want to be able to replace it with another piece of original art—not a poster from Amazon.

When it is time to update values for insurance or you think your art is a candidate for donation to a museum, call for an appraisal.