Un-Saleable Artwork: Does It Have Value?


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The lawyers representing the heirs of art dealer Ileana Sonnabend intend to debate whether the IRS can establish a value of artwork that cannot be sold, in order to collect $29 million in taxes.

The artwork under discussion is “Canyon” a 20th Century mixed media work created by Robert Rauschenberg in 1959 that was inherited by Mrs. Sonnabend’s children when she died in 2007. Since the sculpture contains a stuffed bald eagle, a bird that is under the Federal Protection Act for Endangered Species, the heirs would be committing a felony if they tried to sell it. As a result, their appraisers have valued the work at zero.

However, the IRS has an altogether different opinion – they valued “Canyon” at $69 million and they are demanding that the heirs pay $29.2 million in estate taxes. If it is illegal to sell the work, how can the IRS value it at $69 million? Although “Canyon” is a landmark masterwork of postwar Modernism, three appraisers including Christie’s had valued it at zero. In fact, many tax lawyers, estate planners and art collectors are astounded with the agency’s decision considering the I.R.S. guidelines stipulate that in figuring an item’s fair market value, taxpayers should “include any restrictions, or covenants limiting the use or disposition of the property.” In this case, the 1940 Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty act make it a crime to possess, sell, purchase, barter, transport, import or export any bald eagle – alive or dead. Although Mrs. Sonnabend was able to maintain ownership of “Canyon”, in 1998 Rauschenberg was required to submit a notarized statement attesting that the eagle had been killed and stuffed long before the 1940 law was established. Further, the I.R.S. claimed that ownership could only be retained if the work remained on a long-term loan basis at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The attorney’s for the clients contend that the I.R.S.’s handling of the work has been confusing. Last fall the agency valued “Canyon” at $15 million and after the family refused to pay the taxes the agency sent a formal letter stating they increased the value to $65 million. Evidently, the new valuation came from the agency’s Art Advisory Panel that is made up of experts and dealers who advise the I.R.S.’s Art Appraisal Services Unit. One member, Stephanie Barron, a senior curator of 20th Century art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where “Canyon” was exhibited for two years said “the group evaluated the work solely on its artistic value without reference to any accompanying restrictions or laws.”

Why didn’t the I.R.S. Art Advisory Panel include the governments endangered species restrictions when determining their valuation? Can artwork be valued solely on artistic attributes? Is the I.R.S. using a hypothetical black market sale scenario to base their valuation and presume that the taxpayers would engage in an illegal activity in order to sell their assets?

At the moment the heirs are clearly in a bind. If they don’t pay the taxes the I.R.S. claims is due, they would be guilty of violating federal tax laws and if they try to sell “Canyon” in order to pay their tax bill, they could go to jail for violating eagle protection laws. And since the heirs assert that “Canyon” has no dollar value, they could not claim a charitable deduction by donating the work to a museum.

It appears that the government has unfairly painted the taxpayers into a corner leaving them with no choice but to challenge the I.R.S.’s decision. Perhaps a new court precedent will be established when they both meet next month to debate in Washington.  From an appraisers standpoint, a value range of zero to $69 million is difficult to fathom!


Resource: The New York Times, Art Piece’s Sale Value? Zero. But the Tax Bill? $29 Million, Patricia Cohen


Preserving Your Assets – Protecting Your Antiques from Mold


Last fall I accepted an interesting assignment of appraising several homes in New York State. All three homes were primarily vacation getaways for their family and friends visiting during the warm summer months. The remainder of the year these 19th century farmhouses stood vacant and unventilated.

We found the antique collections of Period furniture and decorative art to be extensive – but we also found a pervasive mold problem. A minute did not pass after I stepped through the entry door into the foyer that I could smell the damp smell of mold – in this case it was so prevalent – I suggested perhaps opening a window. While in the dining room photographing the crystal, I was amazed that white mold spores even appeared on the early crystal stemware I was photographing, resembling the silhouette of miniscule snowflakes. At this point I decided to break out my 3M mask with HEPA filter and don my disposable gloves!

Evidently, mold spores can grow almost anywhere as long as the environment is favorable. The first indication that a mold problem exists is the characteristic musty odor. Mold can appear as a velvety growth in almost any color or powdery deposit and on just about any object. In most every situation, mold is associated with unclean humidifiers, standing water, poor housekeeping and poor ventilation or water damage. The mold problem in the homes I visited stemmed from poor ventilation and recent water leakage in the basement and elsewhere.


The best way to prevent mold growth is to regulate the relative humidity in your indoor environment. By routinely monitoring the RH levels and keeping the humidity between 45% and 55% and always below 65%, spore germination is less likely to occur. In the warm summer months, dehumidifiers are essential and necessary to reduce the moisture content of the air. Likewise, the temperature is also an important factor in controlling mold growth.  A target temperature of 64 – 68 degrees will also limit the potential for mold. Also be sure to maintain adequate air circulation by using a fan and proper ventilation to keep materials dry.

Architectural or structural problems can also play a role in mold growth. Leaking pipes or gutters, cracked windows or cracked walls will allow water seepage and moisture to build up. If you need to temporarily store items, avoid storage in damp areas such as attics, basements or directly on floors. All articles should be stored at least four inches above the floor and away from outside walls where they are more susceptible to high condensation and leaks from upper floors.


If an object shows signs of mold infestation, it is important to enclose it in plastic sheeting in order to prevent the mold from spreading. After the climate has been controlled, vacuuming dry mold spores with a HEPA filter is appropriate in most cases, however be sure that the mold is dry and powdery. This may only be possible after removing the object to a dry isolated space where the RH can be lowered by running a dehumidifier. You may also want to consult a conservator with a specialization in the types of objects to be treated. Following is a list of suppliers that carry mold remediation products.


Gaylord Brothers, Inc., Syracuse, NY www.gaylord.com

Talas, New York, NY www.talasonline.com

Fisher Scientific, Pittsburgh, PA www.fishersci.com

Selecting an Appraiser – Archiving Your Assets


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Whether you collect out of passion or just for investment purposes (which is somewhat rare) it is a good idea to find out the intrinsic worth of your collection. Especially before an unfortunate event such as ‘mysterious disappearance’ takes place. Without documentation, it may be near impossible to prove to your insurance agent that you really did own that rare nineteenth century 22 kt. cigarette box that was commissioned by the Tsar of Russia. Whether it had a troika engraving or not, without an appraisal it may not have even existed!

The first step is finding an appraiser you not only feel comfortable with – but one that is qualified and accredited with at least one of the three certifying appraisal organizations. These organizations, governed by the Appraisal Foundation in Washington, include the American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisers Association of America or the International Society of Appraisers. Unlike real estate appraisers, personal property appraisers are not required by law to be certified – therefore, consumer beware…anyone can hang their shingle out and say they are an appraiser! Also review the membership level of the appraiser you are considering hiring – an affiliated membership is not the same as one that is accredited.

Further, it is important to select an appraiser that is not a dealer or auctioneer. Working both sides of the fence all-too-often becomes a conflict of interest when it comes to appraising. An appraiser that is in the business of buying and selling, or consulting may have undisclosed interest in the property. It is in the client’s best interest to find an appraiser that can deliver an unbiased opinion of value – and a value that is substantiated and documented in a certified report that is written in conformance with the Uniform Standards of Professional Practice (USPAP). My best recommendation is to shop around – but do so with discretion – for not all appraisers are created equal!

The French Bulldog ‘Growler’


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An ancestor to the English Bulldog, the French Bulldog goes back in history to 1860. Evidently, great numbers of these dogs were sent from England to France and then crossed with a variety of breeds to come up with the French Bulldog. French Bulldogs were so popular in the early 20th century they came in many different decorative forms as well. Some of the different varieties included music boxes, inkwells, chalkware and porcelain figurines and even Bulldog cuckoo clocks! But nothing in my opinion comes close to the French Bulldog growler.

This friendly growling toy dog was created in France in homage to their native breed, the French Bulldog in the 1890’s.  Modeled in Papier Mache they were typically life size in stature, with glass eyes, nodding head, articulated jaw and casters below their feet. Pull on the “leash” and he bares his teeth and growls. The large ‘Badger hair’ collar on the toy dog actually simulated the original straw collars worn by French Bull Dogs to protect them from getting their heads stuck in a Badger hole!

These Papier Mache Growlers sell at retail in the range of $2,500.00 – $5,000.00 depending on rarity and condition. Looking for a discounted doggie? Try an auction house. A Bull Dog of fine pedigree recently sold at Morphy Auctions in Denver, PA for $1,035.00.

Early Treenware Bowl Found in New Jersey Estate


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A recent appraisal assignment brought me just inland from the sandy beaches of the New Jersey coast. After a long drive in open farmland (yes, I was still in New Jersey) and down a tree-lined sand-laden driveway, an old white clapboard farm house appeared beside an old rusty tractor that had spent many of it’s working hours tilling the surrounding fields.

After a brief introduction with the clients, I began what I refer to as detective work – to uncover the higher valued treasures and inform my client of their lucky inheritance. Besides the dusty antiques that stood alone waiting for companionship in this vacant home whose owner had recently departed, in the corner with the cobwebs, buried in old newspaper clippings, stood an old wooden bowl whose warm patina caught my eye in the angled rays of the early morning light.

This may well be the largest treenware bowl I have ever unearthed in an estate or set my eyes upon. Large early ash burled wood bowls are quite rare, and are therefore equally expensive when they enter the market. Ash burl is characterized by repetitive clusters of “eyes” appearing like concentric pools, unlike the flowing grain of Birdseye maple. A similar Iroquois double-handled bowl is in the Leigh Keno, New York collection.

I would date this early American bowl circa 1780-1800. Massive in stature, this bowl measures 15”h x 31”l x 25”. A similar, however smaller bowl (24 ½”l) realized $12,500.00 at Sotheby’s, New York on January 22, 2010. Due to rarity, this bowl could easily bring $20,000.00 at auction.

Early Iroquois Burled Ash Bowl, Ca. 1780-1800

A real treasure!

It’s Time to Raise Your Mettlach Stein


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Beer Steins go back as early as the 14th century when the Bubonic

Plague nearly wiped out half of Europe. It was actually this horrific event that

prompted the “Covered Container Law” which led the transformation of the mug into the stein. This clever sanitary hinged lid, with thumb-lift in place, managed to keep out insects from the mug and thus prevented the spread of disease. One hundred years later as the German provinces improved the taste of beer, beerhouses and taverns became as popular as Starbucks and the demand for the ultimate beer stein was born.

The golden age of Mettlach began in 1880 and lasted thirty years until 1910. During this time numerous wares were produced using guarded secretive techniques. Almost every Mettlach product has a mark on the bottom or lower edge distinguishing it from other steins of the period. Although several marks were used including the Mercury trademark and anchor, the most common mark was the old tower or castle trademark, which could be found on steins from 1883-1930.


Purchasing an early Mettlach stein may prove to be a worthwhile investment, but make sure to carefully inspect the piece for damage or repairs, and beware of reproductions! Although Mettlach steins are not considered to be rare, you may not find them at many antique shops. If you are in the market for a Mettlach stein, I would recommend checking local or online auctions, specialized dealers and canvassing local estate sales.

Price Trends for Steins

There are many factors that influence the values of steins, but a Mettlach stein will generally realize a higher price than another stein from the same period. There were many other German companies producing steins, including Gerz, Marzi, Remy and Thewalt, however the quality of these steins are not comparable to that of Mettlach.

Like any collectible, the selling price is usually determined by several factors including rarity, condition, design and subject matter. Steins without lids are worth approximately 50% less than steins with lids and the modern production Mettlach steins from 1976 onward are much less valuable then the 19th century steins. Mettlach steins come designed with various themes from fairytales to automobiles and drinking gnomes to hausfraus. And, to complicate matters there are various different types of steins including the least expensive print-under-glaze (PUGS), relief, etched and cameo (also known as phanolith a transparent stone decoration). There were even customized advertising steins complete with a business logo and a corresponding theme.

Whether you collect steins for enjoyment or you inherited a stein or two, Mettlach steins have proven to be a good investment. In the 1950’s the average ½ liter etched stein sold for $25.00 while in the 1970’s that same stein would realize $200.00 at retail. Today, the average Mettlach stein can be found at auction from $300.00 and upward, while the more desirable, rare steins sell over $1,000.00.

Proper Care

When caring for your stein, remember only to use luke warm water, mild soap and a soft brush. Storing steins in sunlit windows or in temperature extremes such as basements and attics could cause stress lines to the glaze and wrapping them in newspaper could discolor the pewter.

On Estate Appraisals…


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Just When I Thought I was Safe – One dreary afternoon …I found myself alone on an estate appraisal that would have made Alfred Hitchcock’s imagination run wild. My client was a slightly older than middle-aged gentleman who had lived alone with his mother. She had died almost a year earlier but her slippers still sat eerily in place by the side of her bed. His boyish bedroom seemed frozen in time from 1945. Shortly after inspecting his collection of figurines, which were seamlessly glued back together after being severed at the head, he asked me to go with him to the basement to appraise some furniture stored there. With trepidation, I followed him into the dark cellar, my cell phone gripped tightly in the palm of my hand. I couldn’t help but think of Tony Perkins in “Psycho.” Thankfully there was no one down there waiting for me in a rocking chair, but I still wondered that evening how much water damage would be done to my bathroom if I showered with the curtain open.

On Matrimonial Appraisals…


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Sleeping with the Enemy? (Or have I been watching too many episodes of Desperate Housewives) – Perhaps one of the scariest moments for me was when I received a call from a housewife to appraise the contents of her home for marital dissolution. While spending three hours typing inventory, I listened intently to the stories of her tepid marriage, which weaved an unnerving portrait of her husband – highlights of which included him replacing her diamond engagement ring while she was taking an afternoon shower and the strange disappearance of several paintings off the walls of her home, that had been replaced with mediocre copies. My mind was awhirl with thoughts of Julia Roberts being stalked in “Sleeping with the Enemy” and at that point, I realized the trickiest part of this appraisal was completing the inventory and getting out quickly. The husband’s bedroom, which also had to be inventoried was behind a locked door and only accessed by “his” key. I was told, to my relief, that he was out of town but minutes later, nearly completing the job-at-hand, I heard a disturbing sound of car keys hitting the table in the kitchen downstairs followed by heavy footsteps coming in my direction. Finding myself cornered in a side bedroom behind a vulnerable, nervous spouse (a closet would have been preferable) I wondered why situations like this weren’t covered by any of my professors in college and I made a mental note to start backing my car into driveways from now on for a quick getaway!