Since Sotheby's founder Samuel Baker sold some 400 books from an estate library in London in 1744, the company has grown into an international auction house—handling some of the most important paintings, manuscripts and books in the world. Nan Chisholm appraised fine art for Sotheby's for more than 20 years, valuing paintings from the old masters to 20th century artists, before leaving to start her own appraisal/broker business four years ago. She can also be seen on the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow" offering her expert opinion on paintings from around the world. Now she tells Smithsonian.com just what her job is worth.
How did you get into this line of work?
Between college and graduate school, I had a fellowship at the Whitney Museum [of American Art] and I assumed I would end up working in a museum. Someone at the L.A. County Museum said, "You really need to get your PhD and go pay your dues." I thought, what else can I do? Another friend suggested, "Why don't you go to Sotheby's?" They had an auction house in Los Angeles at that time. I walked in the door and they hired me immediately to work at their exhibitions. So my first job was helping people find the lots they couldn't locate and being in charge of the keys to the locked cabinets.
What's the training or background required?
Having an art history background is great, but the artists you study in art history are ones that are well established. The best pieces are in museum collections, and that's certainly not what you're going to see walking into an auction house. The great thing about working at an auction house is it's like getting a degree in and of itself. If you're cataloguing, you're seeing a high volume of property. You get to handle everything, as opposed to looking at slides. You really learn so much every day. You're exposed to new artists, you're figuring out what is desirable for that artist and you're also learning about the fickle tastes that drive the market, as well as dealing with clients.
Describe your average day as an art appraiser.
I could get a phone call and someone could say, "Please help me sell this painting," or "I need an appraisal." That's the way it was at Sotheby's and that's what I always loved—the unpredictable day-to-day schedule. Right now, I'm involved with several appraisals so I'm doing a lot of price checking. There's usually a lot of phone and e-mail, and there's also running out to a gallery or going to an auction house exhibition to look at things for a prospective buyer.
You need to be a little bit of a detective. One thing I learned at Sotheby's is to have a healthy skepticism. If you're looking at a picture or a painting itself, you have to think: Does the signature look right? Does this compare well to things I've seen in the past? And then there's also being a little bit of a diplomat. If you have to give somebody bad news about something that they have always thought was going to be the nest egg for the kids' education, it's good if you can let them down gently.
Describe your day as an appraiser for "Antiques Roadshow."
We usually get around 6,000 people at each Roadshow, and they each bring two things. So that's approximately 12,000 appraisals. There are maybe 80 appraisers—five are paintings appraisers. We get there at 7 in the morning and sometimes don't leave until 7 at night. Out of all those appraisals all day long, they tape about 50 segments. At the painting table, there are always long lines. My theory is it's because people watch the show and realize that paintings can be among the most expensive items.
What's the most interesting part of the job?
It really is meeting people—either seeing what they bring in or else going to their house and seeing the collection they've put together over the years. There are always these great stories. A couple weeks ago, I saw this fantastic painting by this American artist named Bror Julius Olsson Nordfeldt, who is Swedish by birth. I saw [the owner] take it out of the box it was in and thought, Wow! It's from circa 1915 and has great colors. It is an oil on canvas and the subject is two Portuguese fishermen in Provincetown; on the reverse is another painting of some bathers in a landscape. She and her husband had inherited the painting from his father, and it had always been displayed as the nudes in a landscape. They never realized there was a second painting until they took it off the wall. Ironically, the fishermen are actually the more desirable subject. I told her it could sell for around $100,000. She had no idea.
What has been your most exciting moment on the job?
It's always very exiting when a painting you discover sells very well. There was a painting by José María Velasco I appraised at a charitable fundraiser that had been purchased around 1930. Velasco is considered a national treasure in Mexico and is coveted by Mexican collectors. When that generation [that bought it] died, the children inherited it. They knew it was worth a certain amount of money, but none of us anticipated the result. With an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000, it made almost $2.5 million and broke the previous record price of $300,000.
What's the biggest misconception about the work?
People think it's so glamorous. I can't tell you how many times I've been in dusty old houses—and I have an allergy to dust. I can think of a few appraisals where the conditions have been pretty terrible.
People also think I can remember everything. They'll say, "How much did it sell for?" We all use Internet sites to look up prices. It's nice to have a general sense, but sometimes people expect your brain to be equivalent to a database. It's flattering, but a bit unrealistic.
Any advice for people cleaning out their garages or attics?
I would say, having heard a few horror stories, to always look for a signature on a painting and examine the reverse side. If it's something they're uncomfortable selling, they need to check with someone reliable. If the work is attributed to a major artist, one can always make an appointment with the local art museum curator to verify authenticity. They won't give you a value, but if you found out that something was indeed a Winslow Homer, you could then have the work appraised.
One time this woman called me from Nebraska and said, "I have a Joshua Reynolds." I told her to send me a photograph and measurements. It wasn't a Reynolds. I'm thinking, how do I get this across to her? I say, "Listen, you don't have a painting by the
Reynolds but by Joe Blow Reynolds." The next day I get this fax: "I have gone to the library, I have searched on the Internet, and I just want to tell you there is no Joe Blow Reynolds. You don't know anything."
What are the downsides to your job?
It's just like anything else, you get overwhelmed. You feel too busy. But when I stop and think, I get to look at art for my job and talk to people about it. I think, what could be better? I'm very happy with what I do.