by Grant Moser
Anyone who has ever watched Antiques Roadshow on public TV knows that the art and antiques appraisal business can be quite interesting, to put it mildly. Take, for instance, the call Wyndmoor resident Anita Heriot, 47, received in October asking for help in determining the value of an Egyptian sarcophagus. Or the call from a gentleman who found a Civil War surgeon’s kit in his basement. “That’s the kind of call we get every day. Items need accurate valuations,” she said.
In 2010, Heriot was running the appraisal department at Philadelphia’s Freeman’s Auctions, the oldest auction house in America. (The Freeman family is from Chestnut Hill.) Her colleague, Rachel Doerr, was running the appraisal department at Lyon & Turnbull, the oldest auction house in Britain. They both found that their clients didn’t want auction houses in their homes; they preferred an independent company.
Heriot and Doerr approached both of their employers and received their blessing to set up a branch of Pall Mall Art Advisors, an appraisal and advisory firm in both the U.S. and U.K. (The name of the firm comes from Pall Mall Street in London, the location of their office in London. The street also houses many important galleries and institutions.) Pall Mall Art Advisors is one of the largest appraisal firms in both the U.K. and the U.S. They now have offices in San Francisco, Glasgow and Edinburgh as well as Philadelphia and London. Notwithstanding the already established client list, the company also found itself in the right place at the right time.
“Globally, the situation of tangible assets has become extremely important,” Heriot explained. “As the recession made it difficult for people to utilize their real assets, like real estate, people started looking to tangible assets for investment. No longer is it appropriate for a mom and pop firm to handle these assets. The game has become way too serious.
“We work with a lot of banks, and when clients have art as collateral, they need a firm, not someone who works at an antique shop, to handle their appraisals. There’s also been a major move at the IRS with a very sophisticated analysis of appraisals that are coming in. The IRS has something called the Art Panel, and any item valued over $50,000 will be audited. Clients and law firms are looking for a real firm to handle valuations.”
One example of the importance of correct valuations came with the donation of five Chinese scrolls to Smith College. The donor had found them in an old chest bequeathed to her from a missionary in China. It had sat untouched for 50 years before she opened it. Her son worked at Smith College, and she offered them to the school. Pall Mall discovered that one of the artists was QiBai Shi, who has the second highest revenue of sales in the global market of any artist. Her charitable deduction had to be correct, or she could have been audited by the IRS. Tangible assets have become so important, Heriot explained, that Pall Mall both values objects and helps clients sell them. She insists a person should never call an auction house to sell their valuables.
“I’ve worked at many, and they’re hunters,” she said. “They pick what they want and charge fees. We look at the materials, determine which auction houses are appropriate for the items, and let them bid against each other. The winner is the house that offers to market the items the best and give the lowest fee structure. Our commission comes out of the auction house’s side.”
Recently, Pall Mall helped Barbara Safford, who owns the historic Vaux Hill mansion in Phoenixville, sell her collection of French furniture and decorative arts. Four auction houses competed, with Freeman’s winning the right. The initial estimate of sale for the collection was $750,000, but it wound up bringing in $4 million.
Sometimes, Pall Mall divides up a collection between different auction houses based on the best place for a particular item to sell. A family in Chester County was downsizing and brought in Pall Mall to value and sell their collection.
“Sotheby’s took a few of the very top pieces because that was the best place for them,” said Heriot. “The owner wanted many of her things to stay in the Philadelphia area, so Freeman’s is selling a large collection of furniture. Dealers from New York came and purchased some silver pieces. The other pieces that aren’t appropriate for Freeman’s are going to William Bunch Auctions in Chadds Ford. When all of that is done, we will do another clean sweep.”
Heriot had an early start in the art world. Growing up in Baltimore, her grandfather was a significant modern art and African art collector. She spent a lot of time traveling with her family and being exposed to art. She majored in art history at Bowdoin College in Maine, received a master’s from the University of London focusing on Asian culture and art, and then earned another degree from New York University in art appraisal.
“I love the academic side of art history; identifying an object correctly and its place in history. But I love the auction world; what’s it’s worth, its value. So appraising combines research and the art market. It’s the best marriage of those two disciplines. I was made to do it. Every time you do an appraisal, you learn something new.”
Heriot admits the art world has changed drastically in the last 15 years. It used to be that an appraiser would enter a client’s home and ask for antiques, porcelain, paintings and jewelry, in that order. Now the first question is whether they have any Asian materials, then blue chip artists, then jewelry. Antiques are the very last query. This is because the biggest buyers of art today are from Brazil, China, India and Russia; they aren’t interested in English or American antiques.
However, even Heriot can be surprised. Early in 2013, Pall Mall was asked to look at a collection in Seattle. The couple were known collectors, and the trust company was basing the value of 54 paintings they owned on an appraisal from 1983. These paintings had never been to market and had not been seen by appraisers for 30 years. Heriot looked at the list of artists and was shocked. She went to see the collection herself.
“We saw four Rothkos, two Francis Bacons, Pollocks, Clyfford Stills. The list goes on and on. I will never forget that day. The house looked out over the Seattle harbor and was built around the art. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the end what surprised me was that this collection, which the trust company was valuing at $2 million, was easily worth $140 million. And there had been almost no estate planning.”
What Heriot hopes for is that her stepchildren, Leland, a senior at Masterman, and Sonia, a sophomore at Germantown Friends, and her children, Joshua, a junior at SCH Academy, and Gabriel, an 8th grader at Welsh Valley Middle School, see their mother do something she’s passionate about and understand how fulfilling it is to find such a career. “Work is such a big part of your life. If you do it just for the money, it leaves you empty with days that are very long. I want my children to have what I have, for each day to be exciting.”
For more information on Pall Mall Art Advisors, call 610-254-8400 or visit www.pallmallartadvisors.com.