Since Sotheby's founder Samuel Baker sold some 400 books from an estate library in London in 1744, the company has grown into an international auction house—handling some of the most important paintings, manuscripts and books in the world. Nan Chisholm appraised fine art for Sotheby's for more than 20 years, valuing paintings from the old masters to 20th century artists, before leaving to start her own appraisal/broker business four years ago. She can also be seen on the PBS series "Antiques Roadshow" offering her expert opinion on paintings from around the world. Now she tells Smithsonian.com just what her job is worth.
How did you get into this line of work?
Between college and graduate school, I had a fellowship at the Whitney Museum [of American Art] and I assumed I would end up working in a museum. Someone at the L.A. County Museum said, "You really need to get your PhD and go pay your dues." I thought, what else can I do? Another friend suggested, "Why don't you go to Sotheby's?" They had an auction house in Los Angeles at that time. I walked in the door and they hired me immediately to work at their exhibitions. So my first job was helping people find the lots they couldn't locate and being in charge of the keys to the locked cabinets.
What's the training or background required?
Having an art history background is great, but the artists you study in art history are ones that are well established. The best pieces are in museum collections, and that's certainly not what you're going to see walking into an auction house. The great thing about working at an auction house is it's like getting a degree in and of itself. If you're cataloguing, you're seeing a high volume of property. You get to handle everything, as opposed to looking at slides. You really learn so much every day. You're exposed to new artists, you're figuring out what is desirable for that artist and you're also learning about the fickle tastes that drive the market, as well as dealing with clients.
Describe your average day as an art appraiser.
I could get a phone call and someone could say, "Please help me sell this painting, " or "I need an appraisal." That's the way it was at Sotheby's and that's what I always loved—the unpredictable day-to-day schedule. Right now, I'm involved with several appraisals so I'm doing a lot of price checking. There's usually a lot of phone and e-mail, and there's also running out to a gallery or going to an auction house exhibition to look at things for a prospective buyer.
You need to be a little bit of a detective. One thing I learned at Sotheby's is to have a healthy skepticism. If you're looking at a picture or a painting itself, you have to think: Does the signature look right? Does this compare well to things I've seen in the past? And then there's also being a little bit of a diplomat. If you have to give somebody bad news about something that they have always thought was going to be the nest egg for the kids' education, it's good if you can let them down gently.