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Friday, June 18, 2010

A Budding Art Researcher's Experience with Unsigned Portrait Paintings

My grandfather was an avid collector of fine art and antiques. As he grew older and older, and his hospital bills became larger and larger my grandmother wanted to begin selling his fine art and antiques to help pay for these growing expenses. As I combed through my grandfather's art and antique collection I noticed his large collection of portraits. Upon further inspection I noticed that most of these portraits had no signatures which hindered my research process on these paintings. From my art history background I suspected that stylistically most of these works were European, but some looked to be American. I noticed that unsigned portraits had an incredible range in prices and found that many great portrait artists didn't sign their works. Since I was entrusted to sell this art collection I had an incredible project to try and get appropriate value for these paintings.

I began by taking photographs of all the portraits and began taking them around town to various auction houses. They flipped through the photographs very quickly and put values to each photo. It didn't take more than 10 minutes to put values on over 60 portraits at one of these auction houses. When I asked them to tell me more about them I would get responses like, "They look European, well...there are a few American pieces here...ummm, yeah we'll take em and sell them for you." When I would press them for more information they would only give me very general responses like, "this one is nice." The values all seemed to be very similar to one another and I found it hard to believe that all these portraits were that similar in quality.

I realized that the auction houses in the area didn't have the proper expertise I was looking for so I decided that it was time to consult with an art expert. I brought a handful of the more unique portraits to an art appraisal expert for a consultation. I was immeadiatley impressed with the professionalism and the wealth of information I recieved. I realized that since this person didn't have an interest in making a sale they were more straight forward with me and truthful. One of the portraits that I showed him immeadiatley caught his attention. The portrait was of a young girl holding an orange. The figure looked pasted on the canvas and was very flat and two dimensional. The clothes on the child weren't form fitting and were painted in a very naive manner. The clothes looked cut out separatley and pasted onto the figure. The colors were very bold and modern and would explode out of the canvas from their sharp contrast to the dark background. The figure appeared to look like a doll, with no real human emotion and a pasty white skin tone. The expert told me that he would have to do more research on this piece and would call me when gathered more information.

After waiting about 4 days the expert called about this portrait. I learned that it was a portrait by the American portrait artist Ammi Phillips. Phillips was a self taught American Limner artist who rarely signed his portraits and was only discovered about forty years ago. Phillips painted affluent families in and around New England. Phillips works are in prominent collections and museums throughout the country. Since Ammi Phillips is a relatively newly discovered artist, his works are still popping up all over the place. The colors and style of Ammi Phillips paintings are what distinguishes his works from other folk artists. He used color as a language to "invent and investigate the depths offered by the deceptive flat plane of the canvas." (Hollander)

The Ammi Phillips painting ended up being a very important painting and I was so relieved that I didn't just send it to the local auction house where it would have been called an "American Portrait Unsigned." The painting would have only acheived a fraction of its actual value and would have been never properly identified. The appraiser told me the appropriate market and value for the painting so this simple consultation ended up saving me from selling this extremely important piece without knowing what it was. Paintings have such a wide range of value that it is very important to have proper research done by qualified professionals.

Below are some examples of portrait paintings that we are continuously researching at MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.:

(19th Century Continental School)

[Frank Eastman, (British, 1878-1964), Mrs. Philip Berney Ficklin of Tasburg, England]

[Francois Kinson, (French, 1771-1839), Apolline Rose Benjamine,
Frotier de la Coste (1795-1873)]

Written and researched by Robert Snell

MIR Appraisal Services, Inc.
Principal Appraiser: Farhad Radfar, ISA AM
307 N. Michigan Avenue, Suite 308
Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 814-8510

Works cited
Stacy Hollander

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    Chicago, Illinois, United States
    Welcome to our blog site! MIR Appraisal Services, Inc. is a fine art and personal property appraisal company dedicated to serving clients throughout the United States and abroad since our incorporation in Chicago in 1994. We specialize in the multi-faceted field of appraising fine art, jewelry, antiques, and decorative items. We also provide professional fine art restoration and conservation treatment for various media, including but not limited to, artworks on canvas, board, masonite, and paper. We offer professional and precise appraisal services carried out by our team of accredited appraisers for the purposes of insurance coverage and claims, charitable donations, estate planning and probate, equitable distribution and fair-market value. We started our art commentary blog site as a venue for colleagues and fellow art enthusiasts to share their experiences within the art community.