With an art career spanning more than three decades, including not just art appraisal, but also faculty assignments at the University of Utah, work as an art director at several different institutions, and creating his own reputable body of art, Michael Hullet understands what it takes to authenticate and appraise many types of artwork.
When many people first think of art appraisal, they might assume you are talking about putting a value on old and rare paintings. Although those are important and exciting projects, appraisal includes so much more.
During his tenure as an appraiser, Hullet has not only researched and appraised oil paintings dated 1670 through 2007, but also works on paper and etchings, rare documents and books circa 1650 through 2000, religious documents and objects, and even Native American and Pre-Columbian ethnological objects.
One recent project included research into the value of a bottle of Highland Scotch circa 1900 that was rescued from a family yacht after it sank due to an onboard kitchen fire.
When to Begin the Search
There are several reasons that people seek an art appraisal. “Some clients are simply curious about the value of a piece or collection of art,” explains Hullet. “Often they may have acquired the art by means of a gift from a family estate, or found a rare piece without any background or pricing history.” In many cases, appraisals are needed to determine whether you have sufficient insurance coverage. Estate and divorce settlements often require an art appraisal as well.
Several of his generous clients look to him for appraisals for documents surrounding a charitable donation,described by Hullet as “the best kind of gift someone can give as a fundraiser.” Whether a donation or sale, the IRS often requires appraisal documentation.
When you decide to seek the expertise and advice of a professional appraiser, it’s important to understand that you are also selecting an appraiser’s network of connections to other experts in the field. It takes the knowledge of a great variety of experts when it comes to true authentication and valuation. “In matters of procedure, I must in most all cases request the participation of experts of numerous fields, the Raisonne Catalogue Authorities worldwide, authors, museums, book experts and any other persons who may have intimate information on an artist because of their relationship or access as relatives,” explains Hullet.
The Triumphs and Agonies of Discovery
When countless hours, days and possibly years of research and collaboration with teams of experts result in a positive authentication of artwork, it’s an extremely rewarding process. Such was the case when Hullet was able to authenticate two remarkable watercolors by renowned Utah painter Henry Culmer (1854-1914). The paintings, discovered in the bottom of a closet, were incredible representations of Culmer’s work representing the spirit of pioneers traveling and documenting the untouched beauty of early Utah.
“But it’s not always good news,” explains Hullet. It has been estimated that as much as 50-60% of critically acclaimed artwork circulating around private, public and even museum collections are not the real thing. Of course, it depends on the time period of the art you are looking into and who you ask. Part of the issue is that before the turn of the century, collectors did not have the means or ways of authenticating artwork that we do today.
Especially in times before the ease of travel and communication we enjoy today, many European dealers sold art to American collectors without any sort of authentication required. Americans were more than eager to collect the works of the latest prestigious European artists and had no means to verify the origin. Because many of the forged artworks were expertly done by students of the original artists, it can be hard for even the most experienced to tell the difference. The situation can perpetuate itself as families pass down valuable art collections generation to generation, and sometimes donate them to museums.
All Clues Count
No detail is too small when it comes to determining the authenticity of an artwork. It’s often about compiling just the right details with years of experience, all along with a helpful dose of artistic intuition. Hullet describes his process, “It’s often like fitting together the pieces of a large and intricate puzzle. It also means consulting with the proper persons closest to the subject.”
For one of his projects involving a very large and beautiful classic California Impressionist piece, it was a tiny remnant of an art action label found on the back of the painting that helped link the work to a gallery existing many years ago, then eventually to its true identity. Hullet explains, “Everything counts, including everything on the front and back of the painting, the type of linen or canvas it’s painted on, to the way it was attached to the stretcher bars. “ Sometimes it’s the presence of a brand, a tiny carved symbol, initial or monogram that makes a difference. “The smallest of details such as obscure pencil marks and notations can all provide a larger picture of the possibilities of the work’s origin.”
It’s all about possibilities and knowing what you’re looking for. Hullet describes his favorite part of the art appraisal process, “I really enjoy the research—all the exploration, discovery and digging involved in ascertaining an accurate attribution.” ME
*All paintings courtesy of exclusive private collections representing previously unpublished works of art generously shared with permission by a selection of Michael Hullet’s art appraisal clients.