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A Valuer’s Life - To be (or not to be) a specialist
- Dec 19, 2017
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Well, it’s finally happened. I’ve been joking for years about how no-one would have a Picasso in the toilet and, two weeks ago, in a house in North London, there it was. Admittedly, not a Blue Period oil or ‘Guernica’, but a coloured pencil drawing from the 1960s of bulls and bullfighters, worth about £50,000 at auction. This was my client’s response when I told him: “Oh, the Picasso. Yes, we’ve had that for years. But it’s not worth much, is it? Nanny used to have it in her bedroom”. At least I preferred it to the Salvador Dalis scattered through the rest of the house.
Yes, I am lucky – I see enough art in the course of my work to realise that owning the Van Gogh I would love to have over the fireplace would mean that insurers would insist on bars at the windows, pressure pads on the stairs and heaven knows what else. So having a £10 million painting in the house would always be a non-starter for me, however well off. Why choose to be tied to one possession so that you fear losing it? Life is too short. So being able to handle art without owning it is not only a privilege, but also means that I don’t feel the need to possess it. Consequently what I own I comfortably shape around what I can afford.
Being an expert witness in the art world means that, as in all the best jobs, every day is different. The work is mixed in with insurance, probate and asset work, but the discipline and skill in being, as far as one is able to be, master of the subject, that is profoundly satisfying. Divorce work currently seems to be more prevalent than civil or commercial litigation, but the role of Single Joint Expert allows me to add to the fair resolution of a relationship split without that element needing to be fought in court and I gain much satisfaction from knowing that this works.
Rock ‘n Roll Memorabilia
This is a fascinating area in which I have specialised for many years. I was working at Bonhams in the late 1970s when they were the very first saleroom, in the UK at least, to have a sale just covering this interest. I remember that it included a gold disc awarded to Mick Taylor, the lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones from 1969 to 1974, for ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’ – I think it made £220 - and an acoustic guitar purported to have belonged to John Lennon. This guitar subsequently appeared in a number of auctions before it was finally agreed that it had no such provenance.
Since then the market has grown enormously, led by the Beatles, including autographs, instruments, clothing and early vinyl. Amongst areas with the highest values are original hand-written lyrics. Those for ‘A Day in the Life’ off Sergeant Pepper sold in 1992 for £56,600 at Sotheby’s and again in 2010 for $1.2 million. The drum skin from the bass drum with the famous drop T of ‘Beatles’ used on the group’s first US TV appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th 1964 sold in 1994 at Sotheby’s for $44,000 without its complete provenance being known. The buyer then carried out extensive research over a number of years and it was resold at Julien’s in Beverley Hills in November 2015 for $2.19 million. George Michael paid £1.67 million for the Steinway upright piano on which John Lennon wrote ‘Imagine’ to ensure that it would not leave the country – it continues to be on show in Liverpool at the Beatles Story Museum. Way back in 1985 a Canadian businessman paid $2.23 million for Lennon’s psychedelically painted Rolls Royce Phantom V.
Even a set of four Beatles signatures from the early 1960s will now make £2,000 at auction, even if only on a piece on paper. Add context and the price goes up – you would need to spend at least £10,000 to buy one of the Beatle signed publicity photographs from the Bahamas location filming of ‘Help’ in 1965, one of the last times that it could be guaranteed that all four signatures were genuine. However some examples apparently signed by only two Beatles at that location have been proved to be fakes. From the early days of Beatlemania, Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans, the road manager and his assistant, together with Derek Taylor, the publicist, and even the fan club secretaries, copied the group’s signatures to meet the overwhelming demand as the boys could only cope with so much. That said Paul McCartney became adept at copying his bandmates’ writing and often wrote all four ‘signatures’ himself. Retail prices for individual signatures have risen enormously, with one dealer now asking £1,200 for Ringo’s signature, £2,000 for Macca’s, £2,950 for George’s and £7,000 for John’s.
Last year I was involved as expert witness in a divorce where the main asset comprised the husband’s collection of over 2,000 items of Sting and Police memorabilia, including a number of Sting’s old bass guitars, gold discs, tour clothing and rare vinyl. The problem arose that nothing could be formally authenticated. Although the husband had got to know his idol over the course of the years and had had a number of items signed for him, Sting himself pooh-poohs the whole concept of rock ‘n roll memorabilia being of value and refuses to play the authentication game. Nevertheless it was clear which the stand-out pieces were. No hand-written lyrics though.
A few years ago, another divorce involved me in valuing a large number of guitars in houses both in England and Ireland, including several Fender Stratocasters of some age that the husband used both on stage and for recording, together with tapes of many unreleased songs, as well as the standard fare of gold discs, awards, stage clothing and other ephemera. But he was also a big snooker fan and his snooker room was full of billiard and snooker memorabilia, including items featuring Jimmy White and Ronnie O’Sullivan. It all needed to be listed.
I was fortunate enough to grow up during the 1960s, for me the golden age of the 45, In particular I was a Beatles fan. When each and every one of their singles came out, it was an event. It’s hard to grasp down the years, but their knack, helped by their producer George Martin, was to make every new 45 sound different from all that had gone before. When Sergeant Pepper came out in June 1967, there I was at 3am playing it at the tiniest volume (so not to wake the house) and memorising all the words. In particular I loved the harmonic sweep of ‘She’s Leaving Home’. Luckier still, I had a friend whose father ran a restaurant in Chelsea, adored his only son and bought him every single and Lp that he wanted, not only the Rolling Stones, Kinks, Donovan and Spencer Davis Group in the UK, but also what was just being released in the US. This included Buffalo Springfield (with Neil Young and Stephen Stills – the latter part of Crosby, Stills and Nash), the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Love, Captain Beefheart and the Doors. We heard all this seminal work at the same time as the UK disc jockeys were hearing it. This had a profound influence on me and I have always had high regard for the best rock ‘n roll. Added to this I have been fortunate enough to act for many of the established names in the music business and value some of the best collections.
Problems with modern collecting
Let’s now turn to a relatively new problem in the world of valuation. This is the need to explain to a growing number of new collectors, particularly when involved in divorce proceedings, that the contemporary art for which they had paid thousands of pounds from a respectable gallery is only worth a few pounds when it comes to sell/ assess its market value.
Of particular concern is that several of the galleries now operating are virtual selling platforms and self-curated, allowing artists a retail facility where the effectiveness of presentation to the buying public far outweighs any intrinsic merit in the art. The result is that works that cost thousands may be worth a nominal sum when it comes to a market valuation. Market valuations for the attention of the court are customarily based on comparables sold at public auction. Where there is no record of an artist’s work having sold at auction anywhere in the world, there are clearly no direct comparables and the market value is minimal.
A recent valuation for probate (like most expert witness set at open market levels) produced a total barely into five figures for paintings and sculpture that had cost the deceased upwards of £150,000 within the last five years. One painting which he had bought in 2014 for £3,750 was valued for the princely sum of £300. Indeed this work did not strictly need to be individually valued, as the Revenue only require items with a market value of £500 or more to be listed for them, but the executors had requested a fuller list to allow them to distribute works fairly amongst friends and family. There were some lovely limited edition bronze medallions, but these were only worth singly between £20 and £40 to sell, whereas each had cost hundreds.
The same or at least a similar problem can often be true with jewellery – I am not a qualified gemmologist and am therefore not prepared to give expert witness on the value of any precious stones, but values on gold between scrap and retail are often several hundred percent. I wore an 18ct gold signet ring with an intaglio seal on my left hand for many years and used to explain to clients that I could buy it at auction for little over £100, but that it would easily cost over £1,000 to have it remade.
Let’s take a case from last year. I was instructed to value artwork from a property where there had been a flood. The rented flat was on the lower ground floor. I had to determine how much of the art was a total loss in insurance terms. This largely comprised works on paper. Clearly it’s easy to list a total loss when there is a pile of paper fragments, but not so simple when a print or photograph that is worth X in perfect condition is only worth 25% of X if not. Add to that an owner who insists that he only buys and possesses art in pristine condition. This also brings briefly to mind an occasion this year when the claimant in a commercial litigation matter was adamant that there was damage to the red marble base of an Art Deco clock. This was in the form of two elephants sitting back to back against the drum forming the circular clock mechanism. Even the claimant’s own solicitor could not identify where the damage was supposed to be, although the defendant’s solicitor was gracious enough to comment that there was a natural flaw in the marble which might appear to be damage. Many would argue that marble is interesting precisely because of the natural flaws. So part of my role is to bring objectivity on such occasions.
However, returning to the previous case in the flooded flat. There were two silkscreen prints which had a degree of water damage and which the owner claimed were a total loss as far as he was concerned. On one level the insurers could have paid him out, taken possession of the prints and sold them themselves at auction to mitigate their loss. The problem arose that the artist, although extremely successful in Dubai, where he sold his work directly to clients, had one gallery in London representing him. However nothing by him had ever sold at auction to date, thus indicating that the market value of his art was nominal/nothing as his second hand auction market had yet to be established. This was despite the fact that his oils, mostly commissions, cost upwards of £50,000, with the upper range at £250,000. Comparables of the screen prints were each selling in London for £17,000. Luckily for the owner, my instruction was to provide a value for replacement at retail levels and so he got his money back. It would have been different if the matter had ended up in court, where he would most likely have been obliged to accept the market/nominal value.
How does the valuer determine how old damage is and how does this affect the value? If a piece of glass is chipped on an edge, it can sometimes be cut down and smoothed out, so that the item retains a percentage of its value and this looks acceptable. Cracks are more problematic – a crack in a paperweight will not affect value radically, but a crack in a decanter will mean that it ceases to be fit for purpose.
Therein lies part of the answer. It would be rare to find a Chelsea gold anchor figurine of a gardener from the earlier years of the London factory in the 1750s and 1760s which didn’t have some damage to the bocage (the leaves behind the figure). Indeed a lack of damage would probably indicate a later copy or a fake. The Chelsea body is a soft paste porcelain which was prone to chips. So here damage to the fringe elements of the figurine affects the value either to a minimal extent or not at all. However if the head has been broken off and restored, that would make a marked difference to the price. Some of the earlier 18th century European porcelain produced at the Meissen factory in the 1730s included large scale/life size models of animals, such as goats, which inevitably had some cracks in the body due to the experimental nature of these pieces and their large size. Many prototypes collapsed in the kiln. As each ceramic colour had to be applied separately and re-fired, the earlier pieces are only to be found without any colour. It just wasn’t worth the risk. The rarity of these earlier pieces, despite their flaws, made them highly collectable.
Does a rip in a watercolour affect value? Will a rip in a print destroy its value? Certainly there are some very skilled paper restorers who can reconstruct the paper so that any trace of previous damage no longer exists. This is, of course, a costly process, and only worth carrying out if the value to the owner is justified, whether for sentimental or hard cash reasons. Rips to the edges of older prints are to be expected and many collectors in past times used to cut off the wide margins of many prints – now we usually rate them higher if still there. Many prints are pages removed from books, such as atlases, which have been subject to a great deal of use, being carried around frequently, with consequent frayed edges to many pages. At such a time the book may be taken apart and the single/double page be separately framed, albeit in a tight mount that can eradicate the signs of wear and tear.
How to deal with fakes and forgeries – advances in forensic skills
In a previous article for Expert Witness I wrote about a case involving some large scale fake Francis Bacon drawings. I ended up being involved on three occasions: once when the original seller was taken to court to recover the £1million or so that he had taken from my client (by this time this was the Official Receiver as the seller had declared himself bankrupt 24 hours after the purchase price was demanded back), a second time when his son was involved (strangely with exactly the same name as his dad – no confusion there then!) and a third time when his mother was taken to court (both mother and son had been part of the original package deal which included some genuine Bacon works). During the course of the latter case, forensic evidence was produced to indicate that a) the paper on which the drawings had been created contained a carbon element that had only been introduced by that manufacturing firm a few months before Bacon’s death in April 1992 (and the drawings were claimed to span a number of years going back decades long before 1992) and b) the marker pen, with which many of the drawings had been finished and which it was agreed by all parties were contemporaneous with the graphite element utilised, had only been invented and sold in 1997, 5 years after Bacon died. However a deal was agreed and the evidence was not placed before the court. One result was that, a few weeks after the legal aspect had been resolved, a London gallery put a number of the drawings up for exhibition, admitting that there had been some controversy as to their authenticity and asking viewers to make up their own minds as to whether or not the works were genuine. At this point I was straight on to my instructing solicitors with a request that they let the gallery know about the forensic evidence. The exhibition ended early.
Forensic tests are becoming a regular part of due diligence for the major auction rooms, with Sotheby’s now employing an in-house team specialising in this area. We are moving away from a time when scholarly opinion, although still important, is becoming of lesser importance than objective fact in the willingness of the auction to give a picture a clean bill of health and allow the work to be as accurately catalogued as currently possible .
I recall that the first time I was made aware of the importance of forensic work was when I attended a lecture at the Courtauld Institute in the late 1970s. I particularly remember that it had been discovered that the lead white pigment used on Old Master paintings in the 16th century contained two radio-active isotopes, one of which gained in strength over the centuries, the other diminishing in strength. This allowed the pigment to be dated. What it did not take into account was that a forger could lift the pigment off a lesser work painted in the 1500s and re-use it on a new work.
A more recent discovery (as shown on ‘Fake or Fortune’) was that Han Van Meegeren, the celebrated Old Master forger of the 1920s and 1930s, used Bakelite in his varnish to give an impression of enhanced age. as Bakelite was only developed in 1907 and as Van Meegeren appears to be the only artist to use the material in such a way, identifying a painting by this artist has now become much easier.
Where will the market move next? Many of the most expensive pictures and sculpture are of large size and need to be displayed in large houses, which only the rich can afford. Will there be a move to more portable art, not just Cartier jewellery, the Patek Philippe watch on your wrist or a Hermes handbag, but perhaps a pocket size Banksy?
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