People have collected artistic objects since antiquity, but who tells them if their collections are worth more than sentimental value?
That’s Kendra Eberts’ job. Eberts, the owner of Key Art Group, is one of a handful of art appraisers in southwestern Michigan. She researches and establishes the value of fine art, furniture and decorative items for insurance and IRS-related purposes, such as estate-tax filing and non-cash charitable contributions. She also helps collectors by providing market evaluations and collection-management services. In addition, she helps artists with the business side of their art career by managing their inventory, doing marketing and providing guidance about gallery relationships.
Eberts grew up in Kalamazoo and studied art and art history at Kalamazoo College. She received a certificate in appraisal studies in fine and decorative arts through New York University after earning a master’s degree in fine and decorative art from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York. She returned to Kalamazoo and opened her business in 2012.
The art of art appraisal has changed a lot, thanks to technology, she says.
“There are hundreds of art appraisers all over the country who conduct appraisals from about 60,000 categories of paintings, sculpture, pottery, furniture, etc.,” she says. “In pre-eBay days there were only 600 popular categories.”
When Eberts is working to put a value on a collection, she relies on set systems that have protocols, uniform standards of professional appraisal practice and, of course, regulations for IRS tax purposes.
Such work requires much research. That’s because the art market isn’t static. It moves with changes in taste and overall economic trends. Eberts, however, isn’t afraid to admit that she doesn’t know everything about every category of art.
“Appraisers and collectors alike develop areas of specialization, and my experience began with photographs and fine-art prints. I’ve built up my knowledge of decorative arts and household items and become a generalist. If there is an extraordinary object to appraise outside of my area of comfort, I can consult an expert within my network of appraisers from the Appraisers Association of America.”
Eberts says many factors help determine the value of an art piece, such as the acclaim of the artist or maker, the style and medium of the piece, its condition and its subject matter.
One of the most important ways to assess the value and authenticity of an art piece is by its “provenance,” she says, “which is the ownership and financial history of an object.”
Appraisers are required to consider the provenance of fine and decorative objects to rule out the possibility of the items being looted or stolen property. Today, with the legal and ethical issues surrounding antiquities as cultural property and bans on art made from elephant ivory, questionable provenance negatively affects an artwork’s value, and some appraisers will decline such assignments. In other instances, provenance can add “associational value.”
“A famous example,” says Eberts, “is Sotheby’s sale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ triple-strand faux pearl necklace. It was estimated at $500 but sold for $200,000 because she made pearls iconic. That’s the celebrity factor of provenance adding to the value.”
The majority of objects Eberts appraises don’t have this “Jackie effect,” but in determining a work’s value, she does consider whether it was owned by a notable family, collector or institution.
Beyond provenance is the comparison of an object with the overall art market. Fair market prices are often established based on selling prices for art made public by auction houses such as Sotheby’s in London and Christie’s in New York, and sometimes those prices can be high.
“It’s more difficult to find information to compare for valuations based on past sales in the Midwest because there are fewer markets here than in New York, San Francisco and Santa Fe, for example,” says Eberts. “I gather information by building relationships across the country as well as with local dealers and artists in southwestern Michigan, especially in art hubs like Saugatuck and Douglas.”
Art appraisers also look at the primary and secondary markets for comparison. The “primary market” is the place where art is sold for the first time by the artist or an art dealer. Art sold in the “secondary market” has traded hands beyond the initial buyer, such as through auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, DuMouchelles in Detroit or Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago. Other secondary markets include galleries, estate sales and even flea markets.
Eberts says her own time training at Sotheby’s was invaluable to her career. “I had a wonderful hands-on experience with all kinds of art and decorative objects. In addition to learning the object’s context in art and social histories, I was trained in art handling, how to detect condition issues, and dealing with the legal, tax and insurance aspects of the business.”
And while there are undoubtedly great opportunities in bigger markets, Eberts says Kalamazoo offers its own unique environment.
“There are hundreds of art appraisers and thousands of galleries in New York,” she says, “but I found meaningful opportunities here in Kalamazoo, a city known for supporting the arts.”
In Kalamazoo, Eberts says, she is able to promote art appreciation and local artists. She is chair of the KIA Kirk Newman Art School Holiday Sale Committee, which plans a three-day sale of student and faculty artwork and is the school’s main fundraising event. In addition, she is a member of the Art Committee for Bronson Methodist Hospital, where she facilitates its annual employee art show.
“I really enjoyed being able to do that,” she says. “It was fun to see a variety of works that people created. Showcasing employees’ talents is an excellent way to promote workplace engagement, and the employees were excited to see what their colleagues created.”
For more information about Eberts, visit keyartgroup.com.