Art appraisal a trickier art than ever

In some far-off culture of a past era, it was the practice to kill the messenger if he brought bad tidings. Nowadays, we just take the offending person to court. For an art collector, the bad news can be that his works are not appraised to be worth what he wants them to be and, in some cases, the appraiser may be liable.

Generally, one goes to an appraiser to have works valued before a sale or donation, or for estate-tax purposes. When taking an object to be sold, an appraisal helps determine a ''floor'' price. For donations of works to a museum, a high estimate may mean substantial tax deductions and, when evaluating an estate, a low estimate for an art collection may entail fewer taxes. Some collectors have found it in their self-interest to find an appraiser who will validate works of art vis-a-vis the amount of money the owner hopes for or chooses not to pay in taxes, and for this the owner will shop around.

An appraisal is more an art form than a mechanical equation, such as accounting. There is a purely bookkeeping part to it, checking past and present auction records of the particular piece or works similar to it, ensuring that its title (provenance) is clear and that it was actually created by the specified artist - but, within this, many factors may arise which blur the picture.

The authenticity of a work of art is the area in which problems between a collector and appraiser may first arise. Many works are unsigned and undocumented, and the valuation of the piece is dependent upon the appraiser's ''connoisseurship'' - that intangible quality of instinct and taste - in ascertaining who did it and how good it is. An owner may claim his painting is by Leonardo da Vinci, but the appraiser may not be so sure. This is, in fact, what happened in 1920 when Mr. and Mrs. Harry J. Hahn brought a painting to the Kansas City Art Museum which they said was by Leonardo and which one of the most renowned art dealers of the day, Sir Joseph Duveen, claimed was a fake.

The Hahns sued Duveen, who was forced to settle out of court for $60,000 - not based on Duveen's being wrong, but because he couldn't prove factually that he was right.

More recently, the appraisal department of Sotheby Parke Bernet found itself under siege when a collector charged that the auction house had defamed and, thereby, devalued a work he had brought in to be appraised. The owner, Stuart Travis, said he owned a painting by the 18th-century English artist Joshua Reynolds, and the auction house contended that it was by a contemporary of Reynolds. Again, the arguments revolved around intangibles - what a Reynolds painting is about - but this time the appraiser won, though an appeal by Travis is expected.

Authenticity of a work determines its value, and that is usually most important to a collector when it comes to paying taxes. Every year, thousands of objects are donated to museums or are claimed as part of an estate, requiring appraisal and Internal Revenue scrutiny. The IRS has an Art Advisory Panel, made up of art dealers, appraisers, and academicians, who look at a portion of the art objects claimed in taxes. In 1982, the panel considered 727 items, claimed to be worth $87 million. The panel found $5 million in tax deficiencies for works of art given to museums through adjusting appraisals downward, and $9 million more for works in estates by adjusting appraisals up.

A collector who finds himself handed a tax bill by the government, plus a possible penalty, may choose to bring action against the appraiser. In addition, the 1981 Tax Reform Act specified a heavy penalty against appraisers for what is deemed improper work.

With this act and the Hahn v. Duveen and Travis v. Sotheby cases, a body of law has developed for appraiser malpractice. Tax-shelter art print plans and other arrangements on the periphery of the law will always draw greater scrutiny , but no one will be able any longer to profit from the intentional (or unintentional) recklessness of an appraiser.

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