What to Assess When You’re Assessing: Appraising Art with Rago Auctions

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

It’s an Antiques Roadshow fan’s dream. Once every year or two, Montclair Art Museum hosts Appraisal Day — an opportunity for treasure hunters to meet with experts and see if their piece of art or history is the real McCoy.

The museum partners with Rago Auctions out of Lambertville — the largest auction house in the state. NJTV News sat down with fine art experts Mick Byers and Carol Cruickshanks to learn about appraising and the dos and don’ts of buying art.

“Normally the first thing we would look at is the image itself,” says Byers, client specialist with Fine Art & Antiques at Rago Auctions. “We look at the recto of the canvas, which is the front — the face of the canvas.”

Byers scours the canvas for the artist’s signature and other identifying marks.

“There are certain artists who have a distinct pallet of color and/or use of a pallet knife or a brush,” Byers says. “And then we turn it around.”

The back of the canvas is called the verso. And often it holds more information for appraisers than the recto.

“The artist can often put little notes or identifying marks on the canvas and/or the stretcher,” Byers explains. “The stretcher itself can be a way of dating the piece.”

There’s also what Byers affectionately refers to as “fly doo” — the dirt settled on the stretcher. That can offer information about the artwork’s age and condition.

Cruickshanks says there’s a good amount of information to be taken from good, old-fashioned anecdotes too.

“I ask people how they acquired the work,” she says. “That’s a good thing to know from the very beginning. It gives a sense of history to the piece, even if it’s very minor, that ‘it was in our house since I grew up’ is actually a clue to the initial age of something.”

So I brought along my own painting and its story.

“My mother actually found it in a trash heap outside of somebody’s house,” I share. “The frame was a little bit loose, but they reattached it.”

“We love dumpster divers,” says Byers. “Yes, we absolutely do, and we think it’s a great pastime.”

“It’s in good condition,” remarks Cruickshanks.

“There is a signature at the bottom, which says Earl Lonsbury. It looks like there may be an Earl Lonsbury who was a WPA painter? We really have no way of knowing. Do you have any idea?” I ask.

“We did do a little more research ourselves,” Byers says. “We didn’t actually come up with the same Earl Lonsbury that you may have found. So unfortunately, in this case, this is a very attractive painting that I’m sure your family is really happy to be hanging, but it doesn’t have a collectible value; i.e. there’s no auction record or secondary market established for this Mr. Lonsbury.”

“Carol and I would probably put an estimate of $200 to $3300 on it,” says Byers.

Byers and Cruickshanks say purchasing through an auction house or having the artwork’s provenance, its history of ownership, is always helpful in determining value. And they say to watch out for deals that look too good to be true.

Cruikshanks says unless you’re an expert, it’s hard to be certain about the value of a work. So, her primary piece of advice? Only buy art that you like.