There is a certain cachet applied to the antiques-and-collectibles world that sometimes mystifies even me. Some folks believe that people in the business who surround themselves with antiques live an esoteric life style and that the people in that world breathe rarified air, a sort of ethereal ether.
“You must lead such an interesting life finding and dealing in such beautiful things, traveling to so many fascinating places.” I’ve actually heard this from overly well-dressed people at benefit auctions where the plate of chicken is going for a thousand dollars. Of course, under the circumstances, I agree with them. Reality simply would not be appropriate to the setting. Reality rarely is.
Most days in the business are spent doing appraisals of less-than-stellar collections; making calls to collectors; attempting to sell a perfect Louis X1V bombe commode cajoled from a private collection only to find that the client is stalling on the purchase because his horoscope says he needs to be circumspect about acquiring things.
Tonka tedium relieved
One day, sitting in my overstuffed office, there’s a knock on my door. I get up from my desk where I have been glued to my laptop cataloging a collection of 400 Tonka Toys and find on the other side of the threshold an unassuming person shouldering two large paintings. It’s one of those “I was in the neighborhood, and you were recommended” situations that frankly, under the circumstance, I welcome.
The paintings, as it turns out, are good. The subject matter appears to be a husband and wife, done in a painterly fashion—painterly meaning the artist knew something about painting—following the 19th-century portrait-painting tradition. More importantly, the subjects are interesting, attractive and for those without ancestral portraits, would make a stunning addition to the dining-room walls.
Documentation: The appraiser’s joy
And, even more importantly, the bearer of the portraits has documentation about the artist and to some extent, the sitters. Now, this is the time when that cachet thing bears fruit. Another point that makes the life of the appraiser so much easier is the paintings are signed. Many people don’t know that most 19th-century portraiture was not signed. Appraisers make an educated guess based on style and the tradition of the painting as to whom may have painted it, and sometimes an attribution is impossible.
My assessing eye sees that the paintings’ condition is generally good. One has a small hole, but that is something a conservator can easily repair without devaluing the painting. The paintings are dirty, meaning the varnish has darkened with age, but that can easily be remedied. They appear to be in their original frames, another good thing. There is, with a cursory examination, no overpainting, meaning no one touched up the original painting either to enhance—by enhance, I mean to make the sitters appear younger by the removal of a few wrinkles or jowls, or richer with the addition of more jewelry—or repair damage that occurred in the 100-plus years the paintings have been around.
Now, here is when my job becomes fun, and yes, the words of the well-dressed lady at the benefit auction ring true. There is a certain intrigue in the process of authenticating that requires the sharp eye and instinct of the well-seasoned detective. We sometimes have to dredge through weighty Dead Sea Scrolls to get the information that we need. The Internet is useful and sometimes invaluable but can also be limited. We as appraisers have to go beneath the printed word to find additional links that will give us the information we need to make the declarative pronouncement.
People, to old paper guys like me, are invaluable. Documentation in and unto itself is sometimes as apocryphal as some of the “true” stories applied to certain pieces. “Oh, yes, these waffle irons belonged to George Washington, and he used them himself only on Tuesdays in leap years.” Hmm.
Paintings are real deal
After a few telephone calls to substantiate the documentation, all, as they say, was revealed. These paintings were the genuine article.
The artist, Theodore Pine, is a known quantity. His paintings hang in public and private collections. He is listed in all the important books. There are 2,000-plus links to him on the Internet. And although there are no recent auction reports to establish value, there is enough documentation to legitimize a perceived value on the portraits.
The portraits’ subjects, the Rev. and Mrs. George S. Hare DD, were prominent members of their community, and it was the tradition of Theodore Pine to paint people on the rise and of distinction. He came from a long line of artists. His grandfather, Robert Pine, was both artist and engraver. James Pine, his father, exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1839 until 1857. Theodore, at 19, held his first exhibition at the National Academy in 1847 and continued to contribute through the 1880s.
Pine portraits in Ossining, home of Sing Sing
Many of Pine’s portraits are in the permanent collection of the Ossining (N.Y.) Historical Society Museum. Pine’s most famous portraits are dramatically different.
Rev. and Mrs. MacFarlan
Two are of the Rev. and Mrs. Daniel MacFarlan. They are richly dressed and seated in front of silver birch trees. A village dotted with white buildings is off in the distance, boats sail on the river, and the sky is turbulent and misty.
Typical of when the MacFarlan paintings were done (1857), embellishment of detail usually was in keeping to the fee. If you wanted your house, farm and prized bull in the painting, you paid extra. These paintings are excellent examples of American portraiture and justifiably deserve to be in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Pine’s other famous painting is the posthumous portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, which hangs in the chapel of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va.
Pine portrait of General Lee
Pine’s body of work not only included portraits but allegorical themes, landscapes and architectural studies in the style and tradition of a well-traveled artist. There is a school of thought within the appraising community that specializes in American portraiture that Pine is not of the first water. I disagree. There is a demonstration of a smooth style that incorporates skill without the need for artifice and tricks, and captures the personality of the sitter with a directness and candor separate from the stylized painting traditions of the day.
To appraise or not to appraise?
This begs the question. Should you have your paintings appraised? The answer is yes if the painting warrants it, remembering that an appraisal is usually done for insurance purposes and/or to establish resale value. With the Pine portraits, to be considered were their restoration, cleaning and securing the damage of the canvas, along with establishing a value. You might ask whether restoration potentially devalues the painting. The answer is only if an inferior conservator does the work, and even then, that can usually be repaired.
Okay, now for the proverbial drumroll, the time to put an appraised value on the Pine portraits. All documentation had been done. Other considerations were taken into account such as the sale trends of such paintings. And my final verdict?
The pair of Theodore Pine portraits of the Rev. and Mrs. George S. Hare would be appraised for $20,000 to $25,000.
It was a good thing I was in my office that day.
– Christopher Kent is a member of the WorthPoint board of advisers and director of evaluations for WorthPoint. He is also an antiques and collectibles generalist, fine-arts broker and president of CTK Design.
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