Last weekend, the Portland Art Museum opened a new exhibition titled "Riches of a City: Portland Collects" The museum curators worked with local collectors to create an accessible and diverse showcase -- over two hundred pieces from eighty private collections, many of which are instantly recognizable.
Of course, I have to admit some bias: my Frederick H. Evans print of "A Sea of Steps" is one of the 24 photos scattered through out the exhibit. It's hanging along with some of my all time personal favorite photographs, including what I consider the pinnacle of fashion photography: Richard Avedon's "Dovima with Elephants." There are a couple of Ansel Adams prints -- the "Winter Sunrise" at Lone Pine, and his portrait of Georgia O'Keefe and Orville Cox. There are photos from Sally Mann and Robert Mapplethorpe. Fantastic stuff, and very well placed along side the Picasso's, the Dutch, the Warhols, the giant French theater lithographs, the Tiffany silver, and the hundreds of others ...
It is a wonderful exhibition.
It has also clarified my decision of what to do with the Evans photograph: Donate? Sell? Lend? Keep?
I've watched a hundred people experience the same thing I felt when I saw it for the first time: the initial glance, the pause, the step forward for a closer look. The smile. Seeing this over and over again on the opening night, and on subsequent visits to the museum, has thoroughly convinced me that this photograph is something that needs to be shared.
Furthermore, it doesn't feel right profiting from a family keepsake. My grandfather and grandmother were artists; they felt a deep connection with art, taught others to appreciate and create, and believed in supporting the institutions that give the rest of us access to the world's masterpieces.
Giving the photograph to the Portland Art Museum, where it can be appreciated by so many more people, and where my grandparents' names are permanently attached to the piece in tribute ... well, it's just the right thing to do. For the piece. For my family. For Portland and lovers of photography.
But the obvious question still remains: how much is it actually worth?
A few evenings ago I sat in a comfortable chair at a nice bar and found out.
As it turns out, appraising art is fairly intense. Jennifer Stoots, my art appraiser, walked me through the process ...
Fundamentally, art isn't worth anything (monetarily) unless someone buys it. There is no mystical value attached to art for the sake of it being art -- the value of a piece is determined just like anything else that is bought or sold. If you're an aspiring artist and you're curious how much your paintings are worth, the answer is simple: how much did you sell them for?
Pretty straight forward. Laissez faire economists would be proud.
Of course, this raises the question ... how do you put a value on a piece that isn't being sold? More specifically, how do you justify the value of a piece to an insurance company, or the IRS?
That answer requires a bit more footwork and research. The goal is to justify a price that someone would most likely pay for the piece in the current art market. Over the course of a month and a half, Jennifer researched historical sales at auction of similar pieces. Then, she consulted with several experts who have a track record of buying and selling similar pieces -- prominent art dealers who specialize in late 19th Century and early 20th Century photographs. Finally, Jennifer examined the range of values she had collected from the various sources, and decides on a single figure that is a justifiable and reasonable "fair market value" for a donation.
This process resulted in a sixteen page booklet describing the appraisal process, the people, the history, the significance of the piece, and research notes: enough material to satisfy any serious inquiry into the value of the photograph.
What's even cooler? Finding out my gift to the museum, for purposes of a charitable donation, is worth $31,750.
I'm thrilled -- and I'd love to share it with you.
If you're interested in seeing the photograph, it will be on display at the Portland Art Museum until May 22nd -- and if you send me an e-mail, I'll be happy to meet you there and share what I've learned over the last few months.
Here we are:
... and here's a much better picture of the actual print: