How do I find good homes for a lifetime of my father's work?
October 11, 2011 4:35 PM   Subscribe

My father passed away last year and left me as the executor of his will. It was simple, all things considered, as my brother and I split everything 50/50. The riddle that we're having trouble with, and will continue to be complicated long into the future, is that we are now the owners of a lifetime of his artwork.

We're not in the art business, and never planned ahead for this particular hiccup. Nor did our father, who while teaching art and art history for well over thirty years, never thought to market his own work.

To be fair, not all of it is marketable, but much of it is. We just have no idea where to start.

An estate broker came over and her eyes lit up with a fantastic flame, but I fear that I would be shortchanging Dad's legacy, or that an estate sale might even be financially imprudent. We're not greedy, and his estate was humble, but we would like to get our father his due if he's due any sort of recognition. Certainly he never sought it out for himself.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Metafilter is still my go-to place for unanswerable questions!
posted by readymade to Media & Arts (25 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
is there a school he taught at that might want to display some of it? even on a loan basis - you let them hang it, your dad gets some recongintion at a school he loved...
posted by nadawi at 4:41 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

First of all, don't be in a hurry, assuming that generating fast cash is not essential to either of you. This is a fantastic legacy, and you and your brother and any others in your family privileges to have received it should cultivate this gift — enjoy it and learn from it, yourselves; give access to professionals and academics who can do the same and who can analyze, interpret and add value to it. Look for a museum or gallery that will make a show out of it and perhaps send it on a tour of other museums. Find experts who will write about it and a publisher who will put it into book form; or perhaps a devote a website to it; get magazine articles written about it. Some years, perhaps decades, down the road, with all of this done, the work's reputation and its value will be much enhanced, its creator will have received "his due," and perhaps you will then want to consider selling some of it. Then, do it gradually, not all at once. (Based on the processes employed by a gent I know, now in his 80s, who did much of this with the legacy of his mother's art created between the 1920s and the 1970s.)
posted by beagle at 4:47 PM on October 11, 2011 [12 favorites]

An art appraiser can help you do the things beagle recommends (all of which are good things to do with the art). They can assist in valuing the art if you wish to eventually donate some of it to his school or some other institution.
posted by Lycaste at 4:51 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

My addition to the brainstorm of what can be done, on top of beagle's list, would be to contact former students or colleagues who might be interested in curating a show. A personal touch / biographical history can add a great deal of value.
posted by waterandrock at 5:33 PM on October 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

Curious... You mentioned your father left a will and basically split all of his estate 50/50.

I'm not sure what the law is in your state or location, but in California a will only gives direction to the probate court which finalizes the wishes or decides otherwise. I'm curious if the art needs to be sold to finish the estate split... Is your probate court phase already completed?

From your description this doesn't seem to apply I guess, since I get the feeling you kept the artwork as a material possession to be split piece-meal... but this is just like a retro car or historical painting left over in a trust or in the deceased name that not everybody may see value in initially.
posted by Bodrik at 5:34 PM on October 11, 2011

nadawi, I wrote to the schools with which he was affiliated and got crickets back. Whether it slipped through the cracks or not, I've been so busy with other things (estate-wise and otherwise) that I haven't been able to chase them down again.

beagle, your advice is great, but I'll admit, other than the title "professionals" I don't know who I'm asking for help. This is funny, since my father spent his entire adult life in academic institutions. But academia is not business, and Dad was really, really terrible at anything resembling "business."

I'm in the midst of moving all the artwork from my father's art studio into our basement, so it's at the forefront of my mind. I worry that it will continue on down there in obscurity, hidden from everyone's view but mine forever. My brother and I cherry-picked the things we loved, but there are literally hundreds of pieces remaining.
posted by readymade at 5:40 PM on October 11, 2011

First off, I'm sorry to hear about your father. One is never quite prepared...

I am not an estate liquidator, but my parents are. There is a huge variety in the field, from people who have no idea what they're doing to highly educated specialists in a particular area (silver, regional art, rugs, etc.). An estate liquidator who's for real will be selling your father's work to serious art collectors (let's assume for a minute, he should rest in peace, that his work is exactly that good) and sincere amateur art lovers. It's not just a matter of putting a tag on it like it was a screwdriver (although there is a lot of that in the business, believe you me, that's not what happens to art). Pieces that can get a better price at auction will be sent to auction, some may be sold at an estate sale, some in the estate liquidator's shop or gallery, or some at another sale where s/he thinks they'll fit well. Some the liquidator may buy from you to keep and sell later, or even for their own collection. It's not to the liquidator's advantage to just sell it for nothing to some guy off the road, because s/he makes his living off commissions.

As for the pieces that are not, strictly speaking, marketable, a really good estate liquidator will also be able to hustle these for a fair but favorable price.

When you invite a dealer, consigner, antique shop owner, etc., out to see your father's work, be prepared to ask them about SPECIFIC works of art they have sold in the last year, two years, five years, to whom, how much, via auction, show, or what. Anyone who deals in art will have these answers right off the bat and should be able to show you pictures, auction catalogs, etc.--indeed, they will be trying to get you to look at these materials to show you what they are capable of.

What will or will not sell is dependent on many, many factors. A good dealer will be able to tell you, yes, I just sold 2 paintings of Artist X, who has these similarities to your late father, for Y amount.

There are many different appraisers' credentials. My parents are members of the International Society of Appraisers. This is an entity whose imprimatur is accepted by banks, the IRS, etc. for real-life high-stakes appraisals. There are a number of different specialties in which one can become sub-certified. One parent is on the paintings track and another, I believe, has done jewelry. They go to IRL classes about twice a year, serious week-long, all-day seminars. This is to say that it's not bogus.

But more than the credential (though that is also important), go by their portfolio of recent sales and your personal BS-meter.

Best of luck! I hope things work out for the best.
posted by skbw at 5:43 PM on October 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

We avoided probate altogether. Dad's estate was small enough that probate was unnecessary.
posted by readymade at 5:43 PM on October 11, 2011

My brother and I cherry-picked the things we loved, but there are literally hundreds of pieces remaining.

My partner had a friend who was left in a similar situation when his father died. Even after the family took what they wanted, there was a studio filled with paintings. The artist was somewhat known, but I guess the family decided that trying to sell off the remainder of his work wasn't worth it.

Instead, the family invited friends, colleagues, students and others who had known the artist to his studio to adopt paintings that they liked. I say "adopt" because I think they asked everyone to sign something saying that they wouldn't sell the artwork (or maybe that they retained the right to take artwork back within a certain amount of time, my partner isn't sure). Anyway, this is how we acquired some amazing pieces of artwork, that we really love having in our home.

If selling your father's art turns out not to be particularly lucrative, you might consider doing something similar, so that people who knew him can have a lovely reminder of his talent.
posted by kimdog at 6:07 PM on October 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

I'd have a real auction house, like Sothebys or Bonhams take a look--they might even be able to do it by photos. If you have a biography of him, with a timeline of shows and exhibitions, that might be helpful.
Then, if there's no enough to sell via a big auction house, you could engage a local auctioneer and after than, donate to a local or regional museum, library, college etc.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:20 PM on October 11, 2011

kimdog, my father really did his best to fork over pieces to those he knew and loved. The last few months of his life saw a rotating band of people coming in to pick through the artwork and take stuff home. As a part of his memorial, my brother and I were given explicit directions from Dad to take a stack of art back to where most of his friends are, where they could go through the stack and take what they wanted. I think we took about 200 small watercolors out there, plus about 20-25 larger oil paintings he hand-picked for those nearest and dearest. It was his last great gift, and done of his own volition.

Despite this benevolence, Dad was just so damned prolific we still have scads. Amazing.

I would like to re-invite his friends to go through the stacks, but the truth is, they're full up for now.
posted by readymade at 6:42 PM on October 11, 2011

Depending on the nature of the work, you could donate it somewhere, such as hospitals, hospices, nursing homes, even high schools or elementary schools. Think of places that don't have the budget to provide their patrons with new art. Just as long as you're cool with the idea that, when you visit this establishment in the future, the art may have been passed on, sold, or tossed.
posted by DisreputableDog at 7:16 PM on October 11, 2011

The approach that beagle described: yes, 10,000 times. Go. Slow. I say this as someone who used to work at a gallery that specialized in these kind of artists estates. They thrived off these, because they can effectively corner the market. Your situation is going to be individual but I can at least describe the process from a gallery point of view.

One artist from the midwest, when he was young, he was tangentially related to the New York School guys (as in, might have gone to some parties with them). He spent the rest of his life teaching and painting and in general not showing his work at all. When he passed away the children were left with a barn full of the stuff and they wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. It's hard to say if their motives were financial, or if they needed the extra space, or if they really believed that the gallery (hah!) would 'establish his legacy,' but before the ink on the contract was dry a semi showed up with everything.

When I say everything, I mean - paintings of all shapes and sizes, strange sculptures that were falling apart, moldy pieces of cloth that may or may not have been artwork, drawings, mosaics, windmills - the guy was creative but not very talented. A lot of the work was damaged from years of neglect. Everything was unloaded, catalogued, noted - a few pieces were pulled aside. In a pile that large there are bound to be some diamonds.

Then the gallery set to work writing the catalog, photographing the key pieces, twisting the story in their own special way so that 'once had a beer with Pollock' morphed into 'Pollock's contemporary' into 'directly influenced Pollock's entire oeuvre.' Each day was deeper in so that by the time the catalog was sent to clients, everyone truly believed that this guy was so important that his paintings were a steal while priced in the 50-80k range. Never mind that there were no auction records to establish a baseline for collectors. But it was easy enough to take a painting down to Bonhams, put it up at auction, and bid the price up by phone so that the records were set at whatever level they needed to justify.

And then came the collectors, who for the most part seemed to kind of like the work, and turn a blind eye at some of the uglier pieces. They lapped up the whole New York School fabrication, so that it was more about the 'investment' than their personal taste. If anyone ever tries to sell you art as an 'investment' run as fast as you can. It is code for 'this art is crap so we came up with some other excuse for you to waste your money on it.'

Some pieces sold - the best ones were cherry-picked and framed and sent away. 95% of the rest just languished on the walls or in storage until the contract with the gallery was up. I think they kept a few pieces, mostly to placate the people who had bought the best paintings, since it would look really bad if they didn't at least hold on to some things by the artist. All the rest were sent back to the family in a semi - deducted from their net I'm sure.

In the end - there was a flash in the pan when the show first hit and everyone was in a frenzy, but over time the real art historians chimed in and the artist's place in history was re-established after some extremely lackluster sales at open auction. The family got some cash but the collection was pillaged of all the best work that might have had some sentimental value, and then the artist went back to obscurity. Sure, this all happened over the course of a year, but in the long run of family history, a year is nothing. It went back into the barn, where it will stay and slowly disintegrate in the midwest winters, or simply be thrown away.

Let me elaborate on beagle's perfect answer:
First of all, don't be in a hurry, assuming that generating fast cash is not essential to either of you.
Again - think long term. Be patient and the opportunities will present themselves. The school might get back to you. An old student may hear of your father's passing in a year or more, and contact you. These moments to look back on his career and how it touched your own life will come out slowly and might get lost in any rush to liquidate. The jackals all look for the 3 D's: death, divorce, debt. The first people to contact you (estate sale people, galleries) are probably just in it for the money.

This is a fantastic legacy, and you and your brother and any others in your family privileges to have received it should cultivate this gift — enjoy it and learn from it, yourselves; give access to professionals and academics who can do the same and who can analyze, interpret and add value to it. Look for a museum or gallery that will make a show out of it and perhaps send it on a tour of other museums. Find experts who will write about it and a publisher who will put it into book form; or perhaps a devote a website to it; get magazine articles written about it.

YES. Beautifully said! It takes a long time to build a real history, a foundation that the work can stand on. Someone very wise once told me that the reason to have an archive is for it to be a living memory. It isn't there to just hang on the wall and be forgotten. It is there to be alive, to grow over the years and touch not just you and your family but others around you. It will grow over time and change and you'll see things that you missed in the grief. If it is all carted away and watered down by sales to collectors who will try to sell it on eBay a year later, the oeuvre will be tarnished. Imagine how you will feel when a drawing shows up on eBay for a 'Buy it Now' of 20 bucks. This happens a lot. We had a guy at the gallery who always watched the listings in case something came up, then bought it back at an inflated price to keep the baseline high and out of sight from people who paid way too much money during the openings.

Some years, perhaps decades, down the road, with all of this done, the work's reputation and its value will be much enhanced, its creator will have received "his due," and perhaps you will then want to consider selling some of it. Then, do it gradually, not all at once. (Based on the processes employed by a gent I know, now in his 80s, who did much of this with the legacy of his mother's art created between the 1920s and the 1970s.)

Invest in the work and the dividends will be more than money - they'll become a living part of your family's history that grandchildren (when they finally straighten out) can look back on, and admire the work for what it really is. Part of their story, and since you spent the time to write it, part of yours.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 7:27 PM on October 11, 2011 [15 favorites]

Seconding infinitefloating brains. Important note: not to dis IFB's former employer, but a good gallery/dealer/estate liquidator will also be able to say "NO, we do not want this estate, PLEASE TAKE IT AWAY," to avoid the uncool scenario so compellingly described above.
posted by skbw at 7:37 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Art is mostly marketing. (believe you me, I'm right in the middle of a situation that is a major example of this)

Set up a website featuring his work. Get a gallery do to a show. Keep promoting the work. You have to believe that it's worth the effort. It is. It's your father's legacy. It will take time.

Any advice to have a liquidation sale - especially without any auction records for buyers to go by - is moronic at best. Also, the major auction houses are not going to take the work without exceptional press and strong auction records.

infinitefloatingbrains has a realistic take on the situation. Great advice.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 8:12 PM on October 11, 2011

You could also--I'm just brainstorming, no need to take this as the voice of God--put a piece or two up on consignment with an antique dealer whose store you like and whose manner you like. (I cannot speak for galleries or art-only dealers, about which I know nothing.) I am talking about a general-interest antique dealer with a bricks-and-mortar store. If s/he likes a piece, thinks it will sell, and thinks it will improve the look of the shop, s/he may take it on consignment and you (both) can see what it does. Believe me, if it's a lemon, s/he will not want it. Dealers are, on the contrary, plagued with people who want them to take Lord only knows what on consignment. This might be a reasonable option if, say, the store owner likes your father's work, thinks it could be marketable, but does not have a buyer or auction venue in mind at the moment.
posted by skbw at 8:23 PM on October 11, 2011

Good homes for your father's work? I would honestly say, as the child of an artist who's been producing and selling paintings for over 30 years, and know what it's like to have 100s of paintings around... your father's best paintings are with those he loved most, and you should feel incredibly fortunate for that. I've managed to hold onto one or two of my favourites, but so many beautiful ones have gone. We're lucky to have photos of a few, at least.

Knowing that, how much work do you want to put into advertising and selling your father's works? I don't know if you have much left to work with to build recognition of your father's name, if everyone has already gone through the collection. If you were interested in showing it in galleries, perhaps borrowing back some of these paintings would be helpful (listed as not for sale). IANAL or adept at copyright law, but as his heirs you may also retain copyright of the works in his death - 50 years from creation or something like that iirc. May enable you to make prints of the not-for-sale originals, if it interests you.

There are also galleries and stores that specialize in art for interior decor, like in homes or corporate offices. Take digital pictures to show them, they may hand-pick a few to display for sale on commission - likely you will get half (or less) of what they will charge. Some restaurants will also display shows of artworks for sale.

Anything that doesn't sell after an extended amount of time - my mother would say destroy it. Don't cheapen the artist's name by letting the artwork go for cheap.
posted by lizbunny at 8:27 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

OK, sorry, one last thing. As you can see, this hits close to home in the literal sense.

Although I do agree with all of the advice upthread, particularly infinitebrains', not to have a fire sale or engage in self-delusion, one mustn't go too wild in the other direction.

While you should not allow someone to come in and eviscerate the collection, leaving you ONLY with the truly unsaleable stuff, there is nothing wrong, particularly not in these times, with the possibility of making some money, even though that's not your priority at all, I fully understand.

Someone who is really good--I am thinking of my dad, who is not in your geographic area, so there is no conflict of interest--may indeed be able to turn over a not particularly breathtaking watercolor, say, if he knows the right buyer. (Example: this man sold a large "S" belonging to yours truly, S for skbw, for twelve hundred dollars.) Having work of your father's in homes around town, not to mention stores, above, is 100% in accord with an overall project of slowly developing a real, not fake, legacy.

You might consider inviting 2 or 3 choice retailers, whether in antiques, art, folk art, what have you, to take a look and tell you what they WOULD do with some of it. Having them out for a look-see is not misleading in the least; going on these calls is part of the way they make their living. They will be grateful that you DON'T have some delusional notion. That way you know what your options are...and if Antique Dealer Sam J. Goldberg later has a client who's looking for new art in style X, he knows who to call.
posted by skbw at 8:38 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Thanks for all of your very interesting and thoughtful remarks. It's really helpful. My brother and I sometimes stare at it all in blank confusion. It's pretty overwhelming.

On the other hand, it's helpful to know that there are ways of dealing with it which are more holistic, than, say, rushing to estate sale. We were lucky to have time; I know most people don't. It's a real luxury--time, that is--that seems to be better spent waiting than running toward the nearest dealer with art.

It's true that Dad's loved ones and friends have some of his best pieces--landscapes, mostly--but there are stacks of pastels and watercolors unseen by most of them. I know that there are some which are crummy; no one makes good art all the time, not unless you're da Vinci. Or maybe da Vinci was smart and burned the crap.

Dad would be depressed to know that a lifetime of work ended up in Value Village or Goodwill. Truly, better to burn out than fade away if that was its destiny. (My bro and I had a burning of stuff Dad culled before he became too ill to keep sorting through the stacks. I don't know if it was cleansing, but it meant we had just that much less art to worry about.)
posted by readymade at 9:47 PM on October 11, 2011

Alternate uses of lesser artworks on paper:

For the pieces where you don't really like the painting overall, but you do find a particular section of it to be quite nice, then consider trimming the painting down and matting it to just display that area. It may sell as the smaller piece.

Consider cutting a piece down into bookmarks, add ribbon, and use them/give them as gifts. Could sell in an art gallery gift shop.
posted by lizbunny at 11:06 PM on October 11, 2011

Laminate some of the small water colors for placemats for grandchildren.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 1:21 AM on October 12, 2011

>Dad's estate was small enough that probate was unnecessary.

That's if you give the artwork a value of 0. How are you going to prove ownership if you want to sell an item for a significant price?

I would consider setting up a corporation or LLC to take ownership of these works and then the two of you can take your time to decide what to do with them. Doing it right can be a lengthy process.
posted by megatherium at 4:34 AM on October 12, 2011

You mentioned putting some of this into the basement — please have someone knowledgeable about art conservation advise you about the storage requirements and check whether that basement is OK to keep them in...
posted by beagle at 7:30 PM on October 12, 2011

megatherium, who do you ask to set up an LLC for an estate? I have no idea about any of this. Would this be something that a CPA would be able to do? Or do I have to find a lawyer who specializes in art? Or estates?
posted by readymade at 11:20 PM on October 12, 2011

Best way is to consult a probate lawyer. He will advise on whether an estate should be opened (probably) and whether organizing an LLC is the best answer.
posted by megatherium at 5:47 AM on October 15, 2011

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