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All About Appraisals — Photographs Required
By Meredith Meuwly

Every day I receive hundreds of emails regarding appraisals. Clients from all over the world write to ask for guidance on the valuation of their property, whether for potential sale, or for insurance or tax purposes. I thought I would share just a few of the many general inquiries that I received along with my responses.

I have a small tin box dated Christmas 1914. It also has two medals in it. Forgive me, but my eyesight is not good enough to make out what the medals say. Do you have any idea what I am talking about?

I wish I were a mind reader, but I'm not! My response to the client explained what we need: No, I'm afraid that I have no idea what you are talking about, but if you send good photographs of each piece to me, then I will be able to assist you much better. Pictures are worth more than a thousand words to an appraiser. Clear, close up photographs of the overall object, the reverse of the object, and the signatures, inscriptions, and/or marks are invaluable. A tin box to the client might actually be made of brass, pot metal, silver plate, or another metal. Signatures and marks are important clues to identifying makers and dates of objects, and even the authenticity of objects. Photographs of the reverse side are very helpful, especially with two-dimensional works, in checking for additional information in the form of labels, stamps, and handwritten inscriptions, as well as the type of support and condition.

But Ms. Meuwly, how can you tell anything from a picture of my great-grandmother's beautiful antique vase?

A photograph is never as good as seeing the actual piece in person, but it is a very good starting point, sometimes to establish what something is not even while researching further what it might be. Often the client does not know the origin of their antique or believes the piece to be French, when it is actually English. With photographs, I can determine if I need to consult an American, European, Asian, or Ancient art specialist for further information. Often, I can also tell from a photograph if the piece has major or minor condition issues that may affect value and salability.

[Describing the condition of a stuffed cat] ...It looks pretty good. I mean, one of the legs is busted, and the eyes came out, but I sewed them shut, so it still looks pretty good.

Obviously, the definition of "good" condition often varies from the client to the appraiser. In this case, I did not need to see a photograph in order to determine that this piece is probably not in "pretty good" condition — I just wanted to see the cat!


After five years at Christie's in New York, Meredith Meuwly joined Heritage Auctions in 2007 as Senior Consignment Director in the Fine & Decorative Arts Department and currently manages the Appraisal Services department. In 2009, Meredith participated as an appraiser for the Antiques Roadshow on PBS. She is also a member of the Fine Art committee for the International Society of Appraisers and looks forward to assisting with any formal appraisal needs.