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Why I Became an Appraiser

A refrain appraisers hear frequently is, “I don’t own anything worth appraising”, or “I don’t need a full appraisal".  I just want to know how much this thing is worth”.  Those of us working in the field understand what potential clients mean by this statement, and we are frequently capable of making quick assessments of monetary value.  As professionals, however, we are compelled to provide information that supports our determination of what something is worth.  When possible, we also like to enrich the owner’s knowledge of their personal property through facts we uncover that might not come to light without an appraisal.  This is one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of the job.

My education, intellectual curiosity, experience in the museum sector, and a belief that things have value beyond the prices they command in the market, all contributed to my interest in the field of personal property appraising and influenced my decision to join it.  I was also at a point in my career when I wanted a new challenge, but one that utilized a number of the skills and the knowledge I acquired in the corporate and museum worlds.  I am delighted to say how endlessly interesting I find the work, especially the process of  conducting research.    

In the process of gathering and analyzing the information we need in order to provide our clients with values for their property, appraisers come across a great many facts.  Some of these bits of information have a direct impact on monetary worth. Others enable us to develop a unique appreciation for the things entrusted to us for study.   I get satisfaction from the “ah-hah” moments that occur when I learn something new, identify a nuance, or unearth illusive data.  My investigations often reveal facts my clients did not know about their property. This new information frequently enriches their appreciation for the objects they own. 

As an appraiser I have the rare opportunity to learn how an array of cultural and historic events literally shape the art and design of each era. My work provides me with the occasion to learn how the objects produced during a particular period tell us a great deal about the tastes and aspirations of the people for whom they were made and provide us with a sense of continuity.  Through research I have developed an appreciation for how they present us with a glimpse of history in tangible form.  In the case of objects we inherit, this research may shed light on our families, and the things that mattered to them, which may still resonate with us.    

A wonderful book by Edmund de Waal, The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance  (published in 2010 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux) presents a marvelous example of how things acquired through inheritance can connect their owners to earlier generations of their family. The “hare” in the title of the book is a diminutive Japanese netsuke, a sort of toggle to cinch a bag closed.  This hare is part of a collection of netsuke assembled by de Waal’s remarkable family.  In the course of the book the author unfurls a fascinating history.


De Wall traces his ancestry to Eastern European Jews from the Ukrainian city of Odessa.  These forbears secured great wealth through trade and ultimately founded a banking empire with operations in Vienna and Paris.  Completely assimilated into western, Christian society by the beginning of the 20th-century, the Second World War changed their lives and fortunes forever.  Astoundingly their cherished collection of netsuke survived the confilgration and remained in their possession.    The netsuke provided de Waal and his family with a physical link to earlier generations and served as a symbol of the courage they exhibited in surviving unimaginable events.

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A netsuke like the one de Waal mentions in the title of his book The Hare with the Amber Eyes:

A Hidden Family Inheritance

De Waal’s tale is epic.  Fascinating information about the subjects of appraisal reports is revealed more frequently, however,  than one might think. It is not unusual to come across evidence that ties an object or work of art to an important person or major event.  Facts that an appraiser unearths in the process of completing research can  present clients with intriguing insights.  This data may not increase the price something will command on the auction block, but can delight, excite, and inform an owner giving them an opportunity to see their possessions in a new light.  

Two instances come immediately to mind.  The first involves a painting I appraised for a customer.  My client inherited this picture from her mother-in-law.  The artist who executed the work was a well-regarded painter of genre scenes who was active in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies.  A surprising amount of his work is available in the form of prints and greeting cards on the Internet.  In addition to providing the owner with with important information related directly to her property, I unearthed another fascinating connection to the larger cultural world.  The artist’s daughter married a world-famous literary figure, a giant in the field of poetry in the 20th-century.  The client was delighted to learn this fact, recognizing that it was information that she would not have known without a complete appraisal report.   

The second instance involves my own family.   During my grandmother’s lifetime a hand-colored engraving hung in her dining room.  This picture, of two women sharing tea, is the sort of gentile image that was popular in the early 20th century when my grandmother acquired it.  After she passed away the engraving, along with other personal effects, was sold or donated to charity.  Many years later, while I was doing research in the Internet, I happened to come across a photograph of the print.  Feeling nostalgic, I read the description attached to the photo.  This information included a particularly interesting fact about the artist, Francis (Frank) Davis Millet (1848-1912).


How the Gossip Grew, upon which the engraving was based.  During his career he Millet was closely associated with a number of America's most outstanding artists. Sadly his life was cut short when he perished on April 15, 1912 along with 1,000 other people when the ship they were aboard, the Titanic, sank in the North Atlantic. I am certain that no one in my mother’s family, except perhaps her parents, was aware of this sad yet fascinating fact. Although the monetary value of the print is modest, it probably came into my grandmother's possession before the catastrophe that claimed the artist’s life.  Through association it linked us, in a modest way, to a tragedy that has fascinated the public for over 100 years. 

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Engraving after the painting How the Gossip Grew 

by Francis Davis Millet

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