by Grant Moser
This summer was busy for Alasdair Nichol, 52, a long-time appraiser on the ultra-popular PBS program, “Antiques Roadshow.” He traveled to eight cities for the show and saw thousands of people’s paintings and drawings. He also was preparing for upcoming auctions at his day job as Vice Chairman and Fine Art Department Head of Freeman’s Auctioneers of Chestnut Hill. (The city’s leading auctioneering and appraisal firm, Freeman’s has been in business for 208 years. The family lives in Chestnut Hill, but the business is in Rittenhouse Square, where they offer over 30 in-house auctions a year.)
“Up to 6,000 people come to an Antiques Roadshow event,” explained Nichol, whose bubbly personality shines on the TV show. “I don’t know how many of those bring paintings, but we certainly get more than other tables. It does depend on where you are though: in the Pacific Northwest you tend to see a lot of Asian art; if there was a ceramic or glass factory in the area, that table might be busy; but the constant is the paintings. The first person we see is at 7:30 a.m., and quite often we are talking to the last person at 7:30 at night, and not a moment in between. It’s constant.”
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Nichol studied as a painter and graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Ulster at Belfast in 1984. He had a studio and showed his work (mainly neo-expressionism in style) in New York, France, Germany and the UK. He taught at the Glasgow School of Art and began working at the Phillips Auction House in Edinburgh in 1989. He gradually transitioned completely away from painting to the auction business. In 1999 he joined Freeman’s.
His background as a painter helps Nichol in his job, but not as much as some might think. “You learn a lot of art history in school, but a lot of what you see in the auction business you’ve never heard of. The vast majority of artists you see do not fall into the art history books. You’re learning as you go.”
On Antiques Roadshow, Nichol generally looks at paintings from 19th and 20th century American and European artists, but he is the resident expert on Pennsylvania Impressionists. Nichol is constantly learning, and each new city brings its own specific circle of artists and styles associated with it. He tries to arrive in the city a day or two early and visit museums to look at the local artists, but because participants will travel sometimes half the continent to attend a Roadshow event, his scope has to be national.
“If all I knew about was 17th Century English watercolors, I’d spend a lot of my day twiddling my thumbs. We [the appraisers] need to know a little bit about everything,” he said. But even he doesn’t know everything.
During one show in Florida, someone brought in a painting that Nichol described as “awful” at first glance. After doing some research, though, it turned out to be the work of one of The Highwaymen, African-American artists who sold their work on the side of the road from their trucks in the mid-20th century. By the end of the day he had seen another 15 of their paintings and had “become like a world authority on them,” he joked. It’s this constant learning and seeing new things that he most enjoys about the Roadshow.
Apart from the paintings he gets to appraise, Nichol also has found other perks from working with the Roadshow: the opportunity to travel around the U.S. and the chance to meet so many new people. “Frankly, the people you meet are great. They’re fun to chat to, and there are great stories to have as you talk about the paintings. And my colleagues at the table; I’ve made some of my best friends doing the show, people who during the week are frankly my competitors.”
When he began working on the Roadshow in 1998, Nichol and three other experts sat at the table and had to depend on reference books for any research they needed. Today, there are seven specialists at the table, and everyone has a laptop computer. Nichol has a lot to consider when someone presents him with a painting.
To come up with a value for the painting, Nichol must factor together the artist, the condition of the piece, its provenance (whom it belonged to or what collection it came from), the size (too big or too small don’t sell well), the medium (oil paintings tend to sell better than watercolors), the subject (dashing young noblemen average a higher price than grizzled old men) and what period of the artist’s life it came from (many artists have a span of years when their most important work was done).
Even after weighing all those variables and having the Internet handy to look at comparable works, sometimes Nichol doesn’t have an answer for the person as to the painting’s worth. “Sometimes I have to say I don’t know, but I make sure to give them directions to someplace or someone where they can get an answer. Maybe a gallery I know that deals with a particular artist or an auction house with specialists in that style of art. You try to have everyone happy when they leave, or at least have a next step to go to,” said Nichol.
This summer he encountered a Greek artist he didn’t know, but gave the owner advice as to whom to contact for more information. By the end of the day she had returned and told him she had managed to speak with the artist himself and confirm it was his painting. It turned out to be valuable.
There are times however, where Nichol must be the bearer of bad news. “We do see a lot of work that are prints made to look like oil paintings, they’re called oleographs. People are not always happy that’s the case. You try and do it gently; you go through the whole process of explaining why you think it isn’t whatever they think it is. You are dashing people’s hopes, but I tell people to always get a second opinion.”
However, the highlights are always those rare finds that happily surprise the owners with their worth. In June of 2008 in Palm Springs, Nichol was shown a 1937 oil painting by Clyfford Still. The owner described how he had been her husband’s art teacher at Washington State University. When her husband returned to teach at the college, the department presented them with the painting as a housewarming gift. Nichol advised her to have it insured for $500,000 — at the minimum. At the time, he described it as “his most exciting find on the Roadshow.”
He remembers a show in Phoenix of August, 2009, when a woman told him a story about an abstract painting her husband bought from a student at his college in 1960 who needed money for rent. The student needed $8, and her husband said, “But you have eight dollars worth of paint here.” He bought it anyway to help the student out, and they hung it in their front room. It turned out to be by Chuck Close, who became famous for his portraits. Nichol estimated its value at nearly $150,000. “Wow,” said the woman, “It will make my son very happy, because it’s in the will for him.”
Nichol lives in New York and commutes to Philadelphia at least three days a week, a city for which his fondness has grown. When he first began coming to Philadelphia, he felt he was seeing better art here.
“What always struck me was how visually aware the city is. There are terrific collections and collectors around here, and when you look at the museums, including the PMA, the Woodmere and of course, now the Barnes, it’s a destination point for anyone who has an interest in visual art.”
In the end, he loves his job because it keeps art in his life. “The nice thing about art is that it’s history. You’re learning about history, culture, economics, lifestyles. It’s constantly fascinating. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s something new. Good art should challenge your preconceptions. Also, I just like to see a nice piece of oil painting.”
Freeman’s Auction House was founded in 1805 by Tristam B. Freeman, who was appointed to the office of auctioneer in Philadelphia. The auction house grew with the city, and the Freemans eventually moved to Chestnut Hill nearly 100 years ago, where they continue to live today. It is the oldest auction house in the U.S. Upcoming auctions this fall and winter include modern contemporary art, photography, American and Pennsylvania art, and European art. For more information, visit freemansauction.com.