By Richard Eisenberg
Six years ago, when my father died and my sister Robin and I had to determine what to do with the possessions he and our late mother owned, I discovered there weren’t many good options. I wrote the experience on Next Avenue, and the article, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” went viral.
Recently, when my wife Liz and I needed to unload art in her mother’s beach condo, I wondered: Does anyone want your parents’ art?
After talking with experts, I learned it’s quite possible that someone does . But to find that person or charity, you’ll need to commit time and effort — especially if you don’t know anything about the painting or sculpture. Otherwise, you’ll likely wind up junking the art, and that would be a shame.
What decides the value of your art ?
Exactly how much money you’ll receive — if any — will depend on where you look for a buyer and the size, type and condition of the art as well as the reputation of the artist.
Also important: what art people call the work’s “provenance,” or ownership history. Linda Frankel, owner of the Artful Transitions NYC relocation firm in New York City, says you can verify an artwork’s provenance by having something — a gallery brochure, museum catalog, bill of sale or letter from the artist — that can establish where it came from, who owned it and why it might have special value.
Fortunately, the internet, a few apps and Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite META +1.23% have made it easier than in the past to snag a buyer or donate inherited art.
Why auction houses may snub you
It’s also quite possible that auction houses won’t be interested in your parents’ art if the artist is unknown to them, which was my case. I contacted several auction houses in New Jersey, where I live, and sent them photos I’d taken of the paintings with the obscure artists’ names. I didn’t get a nibble.
“It’s pretty common,” says Deba Gray, co-founder of Gray’s Auctioneers, a boutique auction house in Cleveland. “They don’t have time to deal with some unknown person.” She recalls that when she worked at the Sotheby’s auction house “we wouldn’t even respond to people; it was just rude.”
Matt Paxton, host of public television’s “ Legacy List with Matt Paxton ” downsizing series and author of “ Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff ,” says: “Auction houses need big names and the reality is you probably don’t have them. But it doesn’t mean [your inherited art pieces] don’t have some financial value.”
Although auction houses might not be interested in your art, somebody somewhere might.
Weird clown paintings
“We live in a global economy,” says Paxton, “and if you’ve got a weird clown painting, there’s some weirdo out there that loves really awful clown paintings. You’ve got to get it online for him to find it.”
These days, contemporary art created in the 1960s or later is selling well. According to the Freakonomics podcast , the average price of contemporary art has tripled over the past two decades.
Paintings generally fetch more than prints. Sculptures tend not to attract buyers as much as paintings because they’re heavier to ship.
Generally speaking, says Gray, if the artist isn’t well-known, the value of a painting depends on what’s shown.
“A generic landscape with some sky, a green pasture and no clouds has the lowest value,” she notes. “If you’ve got good puffy clouds, the price just went up a little bit. Now, let’s put in some architecture; OK, now we’ve got more of a narrative going on. You throw in a river, now we’re getting going. The more the artist spent toiling away on that narrative, the more value.”
Treasure in the basement
It’s also possible, albeit unlikely, that art you think has little or no value could fetch a tidy sum.
Gray recalled a local woman asking her to go through her house “and let me know there’s nothing of super crazy value in it.” In the basement, Gray found a warped, moldy abstract painting that had belonged to the woman’s deceased father, an artist in the 1950s who’d hung out with artists visiting Cleveland.
The woman planned to sell the painting at a house sale for $50. “I saw the artist ( Corneille (Guillaume van Beverloo ) and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh! You know, that’s a $20,000 to $40,000 painting.’ We sold it for about $30,000.”