Friday, December 23, 2011

An Invaluable Painting: California Agave

This month's reader submitted a lovely watercolor simply signed ‘Debbie 1985’. A Carpinteria, California resident said she discovered this painting of an agave in an antique store in San Francisco in the late 1990s. After spotting the painting on a shelf in the back office, the gruff shopkeeper pulled the dusty watercolor off the shelf. Although the painting was not for sale, he told our reader to make him an offer. They decided on $80.

After consulting appraisal price databases and auction records I could not locate an artist with the last name “Debbie.” As a first name, there were hundreds of artists with the common first name -- but guesswork made it impossible to confirm the artist.

As an appraiser I often come upon paintings with no signatures, indecipherable signatures, or unknown signatures. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for appraisers to assess values without identifying the artist. This is because value are inextricably linked to a specific artist’s history of comparable sales, which includes both auction records and gallery sales. There must be a paper trail of sales to substantiate value.

This watercolor was likely done by an amateur artist with considerable skill. The artist’s use of color, technical ability, and composition is accomplished. As a work on paper it is important to keep it out of direct light and moisture -- but “Agave” is in very good condition with no abrasions, fading, holes, or mold.

While the subject of the painting would appeal to collectors -- without pricing data, this painting’s Fair Market Value would only fall in a “decorative value” range. A decorative value is the price appraisers give to a commercial artwork by an unlisted artist.

Many of my appraisal clients ask how to buy art that will increase in value over time. Purchasing artworks by a listed artist means that the artist’s work is and will likely continue to be sold on the gallery and/or auction market.

Still, the first rule of collecting art is to buy what you love. Trust your instinct and buy art with which you have an emotional, spiritual, or intellectual connection. This way, if it does not happen to have increase in value, at least you love it.

When I asked our reader about “Agave” she said it did not matter to her if the painting was worth only $10 or $1000—because after nearly 20 years it was still one of her favorite pieces of art. Now that is a treasure indeed!

Alissa Anderson Campbell is an art appraiser for Anderson Shea Art Appraisals based in Santa Barbara, CA. She specializes in appraising European and American art for insurance, resale value, estate, tax, and charitable donation. Campbell is a member of the Appraisers Association of America (USPAP-compliant).

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Samuel Thal: An American Realist

"Jerome's House, 1943" Etching (Courtesy: Smithsonian American Art Museum)
In doing auction price research for a recent art appraisal, I came upon an interesting painting by American artist Samuel Thal (1903 - 1964). His realist style and loose, expressionistic brushstrokes were reminiscent of Van Gogh's early work. I was entranced by the piece and wanted to know more about the artist.

Born in New York City in 1903, Samuel Thal was the son of Russian immigrants. He grew up on a farm in Hadlyme, Connecticut where he formed a love of the countryside. Upon returning to New York City, Thal initiated his art studies at the National Academy of Design, taking sculpture classes at the Beaux Arts Academy and studied painting, drawing, and printmaking at the Art Students League.

Sam Thal became an accomplished painter, illustrator, printmaker, sculptor, and art teacher. Thal spent most of of his life in Boston where he studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and spent many years producing architectural sculpture with George K. Loeser at Harvard University.

By the 1930s Thal was working as a full-time artist and became well-known for his drypoint etchings. While painting, sculpting, and etching, he also assisted in the establishment of the art education programs under the WPA Federal Art Project. Thal also taught life drawing classes at Garland Junior College in Boston, the Boston Architectural Club and the Boston Museum of Modern Art.

Thal’s drypoint etchings are held in collections including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Metropolitan Museum, Library of Congress, Carnegie Institute of Art, Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris), Penn State University, Boston Public Library and Harvard Medical School. In 1942, he was awarded the coveted Talcott Prize by the Society of American Etchers; he was also the recipient of several purchase prizes from the Library of Congress.

This painting, "Figure in a Landscape" is a signature piece for Thal, depicting a figure overlooking his farm. Like the American Regionalists and Ashcan painters of the 1930s and 1940s, Thal depicted images of everday life in America.  Thal painted cityscapes, landscapes, still-lifes, and figurative paintings.

After a bit of appraisal research, I discovered that a number of Thal’s paintings have sold at auction. Samuel Thal's auction records range from $600-$4,000 depending on subject, size, date, condition, and provenance. At galleries his prints, including etchings, were being sold for $300-$500.