How to Tell if That Painting in the Attic Is Worth Anything

By Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza
Photo by Julie Kwak

For art appraiser Graydon Sikes, coming across a beautiful painting by an unknown artist is one of the best parts of his job. “I love when we have a great painting roll in—let’s say it’s kind of an impressionist still life, maybe early twentieth century—but we don’t know anything about the artist. I love to look at that work of art, and say, Man, this is fabulousI’ll bet this will sell for a thousand or even fifteen hundred. And I’ll feel justified if it does.”

Sikes is the art director at Everything But The House (EBTH), an online marketplace for estate sales and a serious addiction risk for the House Method team. Sikes is also a regular on The Antiques Roadshow and Cash in the Attic USA. Sikes is a licensed auctioneer, he’s worked in auction houses and as an appraiser. For more than a decade, fine art has been his world, yet discovering a beautiful work by an unknown has never gotten old.

EBTH has sold more than two million items in its eight years, from bone china to collectible cars to original oil paintings, all completely online. We talked to Sikes to better understand that problem we all hope to have: Is that painting in the attic worth anything?

How to determine if a work of art has value

Sikes likens art valuation to home valuation: If there’s a home you’re interested in, you’re going to look at houses like it, how much they cost, the neighborhood, its surrounding area. This information is going to give you a better idea of what the house in question may be worth. Monetary art valuation is not that different.

When it comes to determining market value of a work of art, start by looking up the artist. You can do this with a simple Google search or in a database or on a fair-market auction site (like EBTH)—with this search you’re looking for how much the artist’s other work has sold for and whether the piece you have has sold before.

There are plenty of art databases that will charge a subscription fee to display sale prices, but Sikes says that somewhere, that information is publicly available, so do your sleuthing before you pay for information that may or may not be there.

Sikes also cautions against sites like eBay when it comes to judging monetary value: “eBay is a peer-to-peer selling site, and somebody selling something on eBay, well, they are setting that price, and it’s an active price and it may not necessarily be an accurate indicator of value.” Better to find sites and sources that have some expertise behind them—not some guy on eBay asking two million for a work by who knows.

Photo by Jean Philippe Delberghe

Determining value if the work is unsigned or the artist unknown

If you don’t know the artist—perhaps the piece is unsigned or the signature is illegible—then you can try searching for subject matter or style: impressionist still life, for example, to get a better sense of what that type of piece might sell for—but these results will be quite broad.

“When all else fails,” says Sikes, “it’s really important to get a second opinion. Seeking out a specialist or an expert in the field is the next step,” he says. “I always think of a local gallery, perhaps a gallery proprietor.” In cases where information about the artist cannot be uncovered, “what we have to do is base a value on the aesthetics, on the merits of this painting or this print, and that’s where expertise becomes important.”

And if you think you may have found a piece by an artist of great note, then getting a professional opinion is necessary to better authenticate that work of art.

If it turns out that what you have on your hands is a reproduction or a print, then it doesn’t necessarily mean it has no value. What Sikes looks for in that case is: Is it nicely framed? Is it nicely matted? Is it in good condition? Does it have a decent presentation? If yes, then, he says, some reproductions can have a value of one to two hundred dollars.

If you’re not ready to visit a professional, you can check out EBTH’s value estimator, which provides prospective sellers with an expert opinion on what their finds may be worth.

So, what does determine the value of art?

“[Determining value] is probably the most difficult in the realm of fine art,” he says. “If you look at the top 100 collectors in the world, they all collect contemporary art, and that area is very speculative. It’s also one of the most volatile markets.”

“It might be that an artist is just really hot, it might be that people really just appreciate their work because its avant garde and innovative. I always sort of separate the contemporary work from earlier work where there might be established precedence of sale. It’s much easier to investigate a nineteenth century painter because usually that artist or that school of painting has been sold over and over over many many years. And there can be some evidence of that and then you can start to establish value.”

Bottom line, if you like it, it if looks great on your wall, then it has value. Personal value rather than monetary value, mind you, but an anonymous work can be better than a Rothko if it’s the one that you love.

What to do if you want to sell

If you’ve got a work of value on your hands and you’re opting to sell, the most important step in choosing is to review all of your options against each other.

A private sale

One option is a private sale. For this, you’ll need to approach an art dealer or a gallery. They will work with you to arrive at the terms of the sale. Make sure to skip the tag sales, though. Those won’t give you the right type of exposure.

A traditional auction house

Traditional auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s are likely to get you a great deal of exposure for your item, but some will be better suited than others to handle the sale of certain works. Sikes recommends shopping around to see who has the expertise on that type and style of art and who can propose the most reasonable terms for that sale.

An online auction

“We’re the Amazon generation. We want to be in our jammies and bid on something we want shipped to us,” says Sikes. And the same is true for many on the seller side. Sites like EBTH will handle the auction for you and though you might not get the exposure drummed up by a Christie’s or a Sotheby’s, you’re likely to get a solid price for the work. EBTH’s historical sale information is available on its website, so you can scan for comparable sales to get a sense of what your might bring in.

What to do if you want to keep it

If you choose to keep the art, then you’ll want to make sure you’re appropriately protecting your asset.

“Whether paintings or works on paper,” Sikes says, “direct sunlight is never a good thing, you want to make sure that that work is not getting any exposure to moisture, and, if it’s a work on paper, most earlier mattings are not acid-free and that can make the paper brown over time.”

Sikes also recommends getting a formal insurance appraisal and insuring the work to protect your asset in the event that it gets damaged, lost, or stolen.

And for posterity’s sake, Sikes recommends doing all the homework you can to uncover any family history with the work: Who first bought or acquired the painting? Did it belong to a grandparent? Has it been passed down? Is the story behind the work known?

“I always recommend writing down the family history and attaching it to the back. It can be very critical to the value of an item and you don’t want that information to be lost from generation to generation.”

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