The Life of a Fine-Art Valuer
HOWARD FARRAR has worked as a fine-art valuer (and, for some of that time, auctioneer) for 30 years. He values objects, but what is most valuable to him are the people who own them. ``Its not so much the objects on their own that interest me. It's their appeal to people's taste that really fascinates me, and how they reveal character.'' The ``character'' they ``reveal'' can, however, vary: He remembers ``one lady who, hearing a piece of furniture in her hall was worth L 12,500 (approximately $6,375) said, `Is that all? We'll get rid of that as soon as we can!''' He did not warm to that lady. He was not surprised when she ``picked over the expenses of his account.''
``There's nothing so funny as folk,'' he observes, a hint of his Yorkshire background surfacing in that philosophical saying.
In complete contrast to her, he recalls a Wakefield lady had been ``in service'' (a domestic servant) and had lived ``hand-to-mouth'' for years. When Farrar met her, she had retired to a tiny one-up, one-down house in that Yorkshire city. She had inherited from a respected relative a collection of glass, porcelain, and pottery.
``She knew nothing about it,'' Farrar says. ``She had no taste for it ... but was careful with it.'' Finally she had ``concluded she should sell it.'' This, says Farrar, was ``25 to 30 years ago, and the collection made about L 600.'' That was a tidy sum in those days, more than the lady had thought possible. She phoned him ``in tears - because at last, she said, `I've got enough to be able to give.' And she gave it all away ... distributed it among family and friends and children. She had a whale of a time!''
In his work Farrar continually encounters all sorts of collectors. The ones he finds ``very difficult to work for'' are those who collect merely for investment. ``I think there's something rather tacky about that ... because the quality of the objects is only of interest to them inasmuch as it effects their value. And then I think we're on really quite sterile ground.''
He goes on: ``But I think an honest love of a subject - an honest knowledge of it - is always fascinating. I'm always willing to sit at somebody's feet where they've spent years collecting and studying a subject. They're usually willing to impart this knowledge and one can always learn something.''
A fine-art valuer is one of those few trusted professionals who has the privilege of entering someone's home and inspecting it in detail. People ask for a valuation of something - or everything - in their homes for various reasons: because they are moving overseas and an inventory is called for, or for insurance, or because they want to sell.
``Sometimes,'' Farrar points out, ``the job is very amusing, and sometimes it's also quite sad.'' He has been in numerous homes when individuals or families ``are going through some very rough times.'' It can be divorce, it can be bereavement. ``One looks through everything - drawers and cupboards - and of course the revelations this gives of mankind and how people spend their time and their private moments is perfectly extraordinary.''
Tact is clearly essential. Farrar had an early lesson in what not to do. Once in Huddersfield, he told me, ``I was thrown out of a woman's house for saying the `wrong' thing!'' What he said was true: that the set of ``Queen Anne'' chairs around her dining table were actually Edwardian. At that time ``nobody was paying anything for Edwardian chairs - it's a little different now.'' Being too blunt, he managed to insult the woman's ``whole family .... I had branded them as ignoramuses!'' She asked him to leave.
He recalls some amazingly eccentric interiors he has encountered in the course of his duties. The house where the living room was paneled ``in scores of different pieces of paneling, different woods, styles, periods, stuck on like a jigsaw [puzzle].'' The same room had three superb antique sideboards ... placed on top of each other. Another was in the garden - ``absolutely ruined'' by the weather, as was ``one of the loveliest Georgian library staircases I've ever seen'': that had been used as a ladder for hedge-clipping. Moved, it instantly fell apart. But it was the complete canteen of sterling silver cutlery stuck, in a fan pattern, into plaster where the fireplace had been, that sticks in Farrar's mind.
Another time he was called to the dirtiest house he'd ever seen. ``I love dirt! It means things are undisturbed.'' Here dirt had ``drifted to the sides of the rooms like snow.'' The house was also in danger of collapse because its owner was a keen collector flints off the beach. Her bedroom floor was piled with them to the level of the bed. But what he found, when he started to search through the cobwebs, was that the lady-of-the-house had also been a life-long collector of quite remarkable discrimination. He found splendid Japanese prints in a washbasin. He found 30 18th-century teapots under a bed. She had a passion for jewelry: ``Everything was real. We filled a full-size plastic bin-liner with jade necklaces, ivory, amethyst....''
I wondered about the personal taste of a fine-art valuer. Isn't it affronted by some of the things he has to value?
``Oh, occasionally, yes it is. But one will conceal that.'' Sometimes, he adds, it takes him a while to ``get into the swing of things with some clients - when, for instance, one will ``spend L 200 on an ashtray.'' But he learned long ago that few clients are interested in what he likes or doesn't like.
But Farrar does think that being a valuer ``can have an effect on distorting one's taste. It's very easy to look at something which is generally recognized as being `fine,' and assuming that it is beautiful.'' He remembers once showing his wife a famous collection of English porcelain. ``I'd always assumed it was lovely - and actually it isn't my taste at all.'' His wife's comment woke him up: as he enthused about the Chelsea and Worcester, she shrugged her shoulders and said: ``Looks like a lot of old crockery to me!'' Farrar recalls with a laugh: ``And I looked at it and I thought, I agree. I think it's dreadful. But people who love English porcelain pay a lot of money for these plates ....''
Once he has been called in to value a collection - it was in a ``lovely little cottage'' in Stamford in Lincolnshire. The lady had been a dealer. She had died. ``It was incredible. I stepped into that cottage and it was the collection I would like to have formed! Everything there I loved to look at. Early 18th-century English furniture. Tea-caddies - but not ordinary ones, there were altogether I think about 15 of them, in the form of fruit, pears, apples, melons, very rare. To see 15 was absolutely blinding. Silver - English silver, chosen with such a refinement of taste. Two safes, one full of silver, the other of jewelry. Eighteenth-century oil paintings. Lovely needlework. A wide-ranging collection, all in scale for a small cottage.... It was a great privilege to spend a couple of days in somebody's home getting to know them through their taste.''
The sad thing, perhaps, is that very few such private collections are, in the end, kept together. ``It's wonderful to see a collection in its maturity,'' Farrar muses, ``where the collector has been through all the learning curves, has weeded out [his or her] mistakes. A collection of that kind is a work of art in itself. And sometimes I've found it's very upsetting to have to break that up. It's lovely when those sort of collections go into the public domain and are kept.
Has he ever made a major discovery when valuing a client's works of art?
``No, sad to say, nothing very spectacular actually.'' But he was once ``instrumental'' in saving a painting of national importance. That painting, by 18th-century English portraitist Francis Cotes, was part of a large private collection in storage. When Farrar worked for Phillips, the auction house, (he's now self-employed) he was responsible for checking the collection. When the collection came up for sale a few years later, the painting was missing. He alone seems to have remembered it, and eventually discovered that it had somehow been separated from the collection and had disappeared from the records. It was found and later sold for a record price. It is now in the Tate Gallery, in the National Collection.