value of art

Provenance, testing and connoisseurship.

As a professor of art, law and cultural heritage policy at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I teach a seminar each year on how legal precepts have intertwined with the art market in our preceding centuries and in our current times. I recently found a very useful guide to many of the issues related to works of art in a text entitled, The Value of Art by Michael Findlay $14.75. He is one of the directors of the Acquavella Galleries in New York City and prides himself as a specialist in evaluating art. In this time of confinement, I thought it might be useful for readers to engage with their favorite museums online and use some of his ideas when looking at a favorite work of art either alone or with one’s family. Many museums have put very dense pixels of their major works on a free app called Goggle Arts and Culture, available at both Apple Store and Google Play.

       Value of art the Three Graces Antonio Canova, The Three Graces
1814-17, Marble, Victoria and Albert Museum, Great Britain

Findlay begins with the idea of using the attributes of these three lovely ladies known through the ages as The Three Graces, who are in order from right to left, Thalia, Euphrosyne and Aglaea. According to Greek mythology, each had unique qualities. Thalia was the goddess of fruitfulness and abundance. Euphrosyne was the goddess of joy, and Aglaea was the goddess of beauty.  Findlay postulates that each one brings a different value to a work of art as follows.[i]

Thalia’s contribution is one of trying to understand the commercial value of a work of art as the goddess of abundance.  We have many metrics today to consider when pricing art.  Michael Findlay suggests that  Provenance, Condition, Authenticity , Exposure and Quality are a good list of items to consider when establishing a value for a work of art. [ii]

In my art law text by Dr. Patty Gerstenblith, she tells her students to look at this problem as a three- legged stool.[iii] First before considering how valuable a work of art can be, one must know the history of its ownership from its creation to the present. This is called provenance, and there are many museum specialists whose entire career has been devoted to this kind of research.

The second leg of the stool involves forensic testing which today has brought the wonders of all medicinal science to art laboratories which can measure the age of paint, canvas, stretchers, and frames with techniques such as thermoluminescence and radiography.  Sotheby’s purchased the entire laboratory of the firm, Orion Analytical, in 2018 and moved it to New York with its director, Jamie Martin who can perform these kinds of tests when art works arrive for sale on their premises.

Diego Velazquez and the value of art

                                                                                 Diego Velazquez, Surrender of Breda
Diego Velazquez, Self- Portrait, 1635, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
27 x 22 Inches, oil on canvas. Gift of Jules Bache, 1949.

The third leg of the stool is called connoisseurship and involves assembling the art historians who are specialists in the particular field of the work of art for authentication. To describe how these may all come into play, I will use one painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art which was cleaned and tested and vetted by three specialists of the works of the 17th century Spanish Master, Diego Velazquez. Michael Gallagher as the head of their conservation gallery cleaned this painting and found brush strokes underneath old varnish which he felt had hidden the hand of the master. The Metropolitan curator of European painting, Keith Christiansen thought that after the cleaning, this was indeed a portrait of the artist as it looked like an image to the right of the horse in a larger picture from the Prado Museum called The Surrender of Breda.  The Professor of Spanish Art at NYU Institute of Fine Arts, Jonathan Brown, was brought in to see the work after the cleaning, and he joined the other connoisseurs naming this work as a true Velazquez. Instead of a mere studio work by one of his students that would be worth perhaps $100,000, the Met Museum had a greater prize worth now about $100,000,000.

Mark Rothko White Center

Mark Rothko, Oil on canvas, 1950, 81 x 56 inches, White Center.

If Thalia asks us to use all our mental resources to evaluate the commercial worth of a work of art, her friend Euphrosyne asks us to use our eyes to determine if a work of art has a social value. I would wager today that indeed many art collectors are aware that owning valuable works of art puts them in a special social status amidst their friends and community once people know that they have important masterpieces above their fireplaces.  I will use one example of a painting by an American artist, Mark Rothko (1903-1970). When the titan of American business David Rockefeller died in 2007, Sotheby’s estimated that this work of art in his collection would sell for about $40 million dollars. He had bought it in 1960 for $10,000 from the Bliss family.  The Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Althani and his wife from the Saudi Royal family paid $72, 840,000 for the picture at that sale. [iv]  Owning the most expensive work of art by Mark Rothko was obviously of social value to this family, especially since it had come from such a prestigious American art collector as David Rockefeller, the former chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in the United States.

And lastly, Findlay asks us to consider the value of Aglaea, the goddess of beauty, who wants us to use not only our mind and our eye but also our heart when looking at our favorite works of art.  I am a firm believer that people should love the works of art that they live with day in and day out, like members of their family.   In our home is a work of art by Carol Hanson, an artist from Princeton, New Jersey. Carol paints in her house and often tries to capture quiet moments in places where she goes on vacation. This work is entitled, Long Pond, and it shows the meandering length of a quiet pond on the island of Nantucket in the summer months where the yellows, greens and pinks of the local plants shine in the sunlight.  It has a quiet presence and brings me great joy each day I see it.  While it is not a famous work by Rothko or Velazquez, it is one of our family treasures.

Carol Hanson, Long Pond, Nantucket , Massachusetts,  48 x48 inches, oil on canvas.

In summary, I think we need to use all of our senses when analyzing, buying or acquiring works of art. The three faculties of our mind, our heart and our eyes can deliver pleasure to all who take a moment to breathe in the lovely messages that these pieces of creativity can convey.   In this time of great isolation, the many museums of the world can lend us their art on line from which we can derive a rewarding chance to learn more about them. The Three Graces can help us with this exercise!




[i] Michael Findlay, The Value of Art .Prestel Publishers, New York, 2014, p. 9.

[ii] Ibid, p. 39.

[iii] Patty Gerstenblith, Art, Cultural Heritage and the Law. Carolina Academic Press, 2019, Chapter 6.

[iv] Carol Vogel, High Hopes for a Rothko Painting at Auction, The New York Times, March 22, 2007.


Sharon Lorenzo – June 2020