They were once known as the Three D’s of the auction world: Death, Divorce, and Debt. Auction houses have traditionally obtained their best merchandise as a result of these three disasters. Unfortunately, due to the economic times we live in, the Three D’s have evolved. We now have The Five D’s of Auction Houses and Forclosures: Death, Disease, Drugs, Divorce, and Denial.
For years I’ve modestly cleaned or repaired artwork found at auction as a way of conserving our heritage. It is common for people who visit my art studio to mention paintings they’ve inherited from a bereavement. They often want to sell their painting but have no idea how to go about it.
Recently someone mentioned a painting they had inherited. They believed it to be by the French Rococo painter and printmaker, Jean Honore Fragonard. The process to sell a Fragonard painting is the same step by step directions that I would recommend to anyone wanting to sell an older painting.
The most important thing required for selling any artwork is compiling its history. Known as the Provenance, it is the paperwork that confirms the authenticity of a piece. It is the history of how you came to own the painting. It may have been through an inheritance or a purchase from an auction or a gallery. However you came by it there will be a paper trail.
Provenance can also be in the form of exhibition or gallery stickers, newspaper or magazine articles, original sales receipts, a photo of the artist with the painting.
Having a written statement from an established authority on the artist or subject will help authenticate a painting. Sadly, the more common Certificates of Authenticity floating about on places like E-Bay mean nothing. They can be bought by anyone walking into a chain office supply store.
One of the best things you can do before attempting to personally sell your painting is to consult with an auction house. Every major auction house has a free appraisal day once a month. Find out what that day is for the Sotheby’s, Bonham’s, Christies or other auction houses near you.
Confirm that there will be someone available during the free appraisal day who specializes in the work you want to sell. For example, you would want to see the person who specializes in 18th Century paintings if you owned the Fragonard. On the free auction appraisal day bring your painting with you along with everything you have on the painting’s provenance. This greatly adds to the legitimacy of the work.
You may believe the paperwork on your art is already legitimate and feel defensive about having an auction house examine the piece. No one thinks your grandparents would lie to you, but whomever you inherited your art from may not have acquired their art from someone trustworthy.
Remember, auction houses hire experts in their field. They often know something that others may not. ‘The Fountain of Love’ featured with this article actually had two versions painted by the artist Jean-Honoré Fragonard. One version of the painting was a bequest in 1897 to the Wallace Collection in London. An untrained eye might think the second version that surfaced in the United States in 1996 was a fake. It wasn’t, and was later purchased and restored by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
The auction house art historian will either verify a painting or tell you that it is not authentic. It is in the best interest of the auction house to find authenticated pieces of art. No one benefits from fakes. The artwork is tracked and documented every step of the way. They will also give you an auction estimate.
Auction houses will also give you a high and low auction estimate of what the piece is expected to sell for. They do this for you because they will want to sell the art for the commission. (You will pay a percentage of the sale and the buyer also pays a premium). For most people this is a better choice than selling privately. An auction house will catalogue & index it, and attract a large group of buyers that may be interested in your painting. They are set up to receive money in any amount from any country. They also have expertise in shipping, storage and insurance.
If you want to avoid an auction house, you’re going to probably require a little more than paperwork to sell directly to a dealer or private buyer. If your painting does not have its provenance, you will have trouble getting the high value everyone would like.
For a fee, you can sometimes hire an art broker who will occasionally research and acquire paperwork on a painting. Like auction houses, art brokers are always looking for inventory for their client’s wish lists. For this reason, do not have the work cleaned or repaired until your painting has been authenticated; art brokers will sometimes use trusted conservationists at a new owner’s request.
The next question people usually ask is, “who pays for a painting’s authentication?” In the case of the Fragonard example mentioned above, an expert or a gallery that specialized in 18th century art would have been contacted. The expert may ask for microscopic paint scrapings to be analyzed by a lab for date identification.
If the paint analysis comes back correctly dating your painting they may also take on the added expense of an X-ray, depending on its potential value. I’m referring to art brokers with high end clients who have wish lists for their collection.
If your expert has a collector in mind, they may have you bring the painting with them to a hospital for an X-ray. This is an expenditure of few thousand dollars out of pocket for the gallery.
I’d like to add that most art brokers will not go to this expense unless they have a contract with you. If you back out of that agreement you will get a bill for not only their expertise but the lab and X-ray expenses.
The price an art broker offers you will not be the price he sells it for, nor will you meet any of his clients. A broker is hired not just to help you but because they are a treasure hunter for collectors. Their job requires years of knowledge, is labor intensive and high risk. Without that expertise you would get a fraction of the price that may be offered.
An auction house will sometimes buy a piece to restore and sell at a later date if it is a high demand item that has not been cared for properly. They may have it restored and save it for an Old Master’s sale.
As a painter and an art collector, I’d like to add this final thought. Never keep a piece of art out of a false sense of history or loyalty. Art holds an energy that effects people whether they are conscious of it or not.Think of how tagging can make a neighborhood feel unsafe or how a sculpture in a garden can hold a feeling of peace and tranquility. If you do not love looking at it and look at it every day it serves no one.
Of further interest on this subject:
Featured Image: Jean Honore Fragonard ‘The Fountain of Love’ (Detail)