What's It Worth? by Leslie Hindman

How We Answer "What's It Worth?" Part I: Authenticity

Here at "What's It Worth" and at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, we are often asked how we go about determining the values of people's property. In order to answer this timeless question, we must first explore what "value" itself means.

The value of anything at auction - or anywhere else, for that matter - is whatever someone is willing to pay. But the only way to truly judge the worth of a work of art or decorative object is to understand the ten criteria for determining value. These ten criteria are consistent among art professionals - from dealers to museum curators to appraisers. When buying at auction, these ten criteria - authenticity, condition, rarity, historical significance, provenance, size, medium, subject matter, fashion, and quality - will help you decide if what you want is worth the cost.

Every Monday for the next ten weeks, we will be featuring one of these ten criteria and providing some information on how it affects the value of an item.

1. Authenticity

Is it real? Is it what the seller is claiming it to be? Accurate identification is key. Without it there can never be proper evaluation. The difference between real and fake can be the difference between one dollar and a million. However, there are no hard and fast rules for identifying authenticity. After all, signatures, labels and markings can be forged. No one thing proves a work of art or any other object is authentic, only a group of criteria will allow an expert to deem an object the real McCoy.

This was the case in October 1998, when Alan Wintermute, an impeccably dressed, fastidious Old Masters expert at Christie's in New York who might have walked straight out of Central Casting, received a photo of an oil painting from a woman in New Orleans. "The picture had been in her attic for years," Alan told me, "and she had no idea who painted it or if it had any value beyond the cost of its canvas and frame." She had inherited it from her parents, and believed that her grandmother had bought it at an estate sale in Texas some thirty or forty years earlier.

From the Polaroid snap-shot, Alan says, he could see that the painting was oil on unlined canvas, and he believed it was from the hand of Gaetano Gandolfi, one of the most talented members of a dynasty of artists who dominated painting in Bologna, Italy, throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Alan telephoned the owner and explained that, judging from a photograph, he thought it might be worth $40,000 to $60,000 at auction, considerably more than your typical garage sale find. When it arrived in New York, Alan was relieved to see just how beautiful it was, and in perfect condition. Alan flipped it over and it read, painted on the reverse in the artist's own hand, the painter's monogram and the date of the painting "G.G. 1791."

This was about as authentic as authentic could be. The painting eventually sold for $660,000 setting a world record price for the artist. Had it not been an authentic Gandolfi, the picture never would have been coveted as it was.

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