Think Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Art? Think Again
What you need to know about selling, donating or junking the paintings, drawings, sculptures or other artworks you inherit
Six years ago, when my father died and my sister Robin and I had to determine what to do with the possessions he and our late mother owned, I discovered there weren't many good options. I wrote the experience on Next Avenue, and the article, "Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents' Stuff," went viral.
Recently, when my wife Liz and I needed to unload art in her mother's beach condo, I wondered: Does anyone want your parents' art?
After talking with experts, I learned it's quite possible that someone does. But to find that person or charity, you'll need to commit time and effort — especially if you don't know anything about the painting or sculpture. Otherwise, you'll likely wind up junking the art, and that would be a shame.
What Decides the Value of Your Art
Exactly how much money you'll receive — if any — will depend on where you look for a buyer and the size, type and condition of the art as well as the reputation of the artist.
"Auction houses need big names and the reality is you probably don't have them."
Also important: what art people call the work's "provenance," or ownership history. Linda Frankel, owner of the Artful Transitions NYC relocation firm in New York City, says you can verify an artwork's provenance by having something — a gallery brochure, museum catalog, bill of sale or letter from the artist — that can establish where it came from, who owned it and why it might have special value.
Fortunately, the internet, a few apps and Facebook have made it easier than in the past to snag a buyer or donate inherited art.
Why Auction Houses May Snub You
It's also quite possible that auction houses won't be interested in your parents' art if the artist is unknown to them, which was my case. I contacted several auction houses in New Jersey, where I live, and sent them photos I'd taken of the paintings with the obscure artists' names. I didn't get a nibble.
"It's pretty common," says Deba Gray, co-founder of Gray's Auctioneers, a boutique auction house in Cleveland. "They don't have time to deal with some unknown person." She recalls that when she worked at the Sotheby's auction house "we wouldn't even respond to people; it was just rude."
Matt Paxton, host of public television's "Legacy List with Matt Paxton" downsizing series and author of "Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff," says: "Auction houses need big names and the reality is you probably don't have them. But it doesn't mean [your inherited art pieces] don't have some financial value."
Although auction houses might not be interested in your art, somebody somewhere might.
Weird Clown Paintings
"We live in a global economy," says Paxton, "and if you've got a weird clown painting, there's some weirdo out there that loves really awful clown paintings. You've got to get it online for him to find it."
These days, contemporary art created in the 1960s or later is selling well. According to the Freakonomics podcast, the average price of contemporary art has tripled over the past two decades.
Paintings generally fetch more than prints. Sculptures tend not to attract buyers as much as paintings because they're heavier to ship.
Generally speaking, says Gray, if the artist isn't well-known, the value of a painting depends on what's shown.
"A generic landscape with some sky, a green pasture and no clouds has the lowest value," she notes. "If you've got good puffy clouds, the price just went up a little bit. Now, let's put in some architecture; okay, now we've got more of a narrative going on. You throw in a river, now we're getting going. The more the artist spent toiling away on that narrative, the more value."
Treasure in the Basement
It's also possible, albeit unlikely, that art you think has little or no value could fetch a tidy sum.
Gray recalled a local woman asking her to go through her house "and let me know there's nothing of super crazy value in it." In the basement, Gray found a warped, moldy abstract painting that had belonged to the woman's deceased father, an artist in the 1950s who'd hung out with artists visiting Cleveland.
"I saw the artist and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh! You know, that's a $20,000 to $40,000 painting.'"
The woman planned to sell the painting at a house sale for $50. "I saw the artist (Corneille (Guillaume van Beverloo) and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh! You know, that's a $20,000 to $40,000 painting.' We sold it for about $30,000."
One downsizing homeowner in Oneonta, New York, had a small Picasso sketch Paxton's appraiser on "Legacy List" valued at about $8,000. Turns out, under the Picasso were two Salvador Dali paintings. The man's father, the sculptor David Hayes, knew Dali and had traded a sculpture for the paintings, according to a letter Paxton's team uncovered. Paxton has said the Dalis were sold and "significantly changed that family's life."
How to Unload Inherited Art
Odds are, you won't be saying Hello, Dali if you inherit art. But here's what to do if you suddenly must figure out what to do with your parents' art that you don't want to keep:
—Keep It In the Family. See if a relative wants it. The art may have sentimental value to a sibling, cousin or other family member. Art "is very personal," says David Ekerdt, author of "Downsizing."
But, he adds, to find a taker in the family, "these paintings or prints will have to displace something that's already in their house."
"I don't want either one. I hate both of them."
Don't be surprised if no one in your family wants your parents' art. Ekerdt recalls a woman he talked to for his book who had hoped to give her son one or two paintings that she and her late husband owned. "Which one would you like?" she asked. "I don't want either one," he replied. "I hate both of them." The mother just laughed.
—Do Your Homework. If no one in the family wants the art, research its history and value to see if someone else might. "I would not be surprised that people doing a post-mortem cleanout would not know what the origin of the art was. They might never have asked their parents," says Ekerdt.
Find the artist's name if you can; it may be hidden behind the frame or on the back.Then look online to identify the painting and find recent sales of similar pieces. You can do this kind of research on apps like Smartify or websites like Artnet.com, Artsy.net, Artprice.com, FindArtInfo.com and even eBay
—Prepare to Sell. Take photos of the art, artist's signature and frame. Measure the frame, too. A frame itself may have value, possibly more valuable than the art. "Sometimes, those frames are worth two hundred, three hundred or four hundred bucks," says Paxton. "People will buy them."
"Sometimes, those frames are worth two hundred, three hundred or four hundred bucks."
While paintings under 2 feet by 3 feet tend to sell faster than bigger ones because they cost less to ship or move, Gray says that since 2000 she has often found that the bigger the painting the higher the price.
You can then either send the photos to appraisers or to auction houses who might try selling the art, or you could post the photos on Facebook Marketplace or eBay to sell the pieces yourself.
—Get an Expert Estimate. For art you think may be worth more than a few hundred dollars, hire an appraiser to get an estimate of fair market value Appraisers typically charge $250 or more. The Appraisers Association of America and the International Society of Appraisers sites have membership directories that let you search by specialization. Gray recommends working with a "PAP-certified" (Professional Appraisal Practice) appraiser.
—Enlist an Expert Seller. If you have a work by a noted artist or reason to believe you have one or more pieces worth more than $1,000, consider using an auction house to find a buyer. You can look for one in the directory on the National Auctioneers Association website.
"If you've got a weird clown painting, there's some weirdo out there that loves really awful clown paintings."
The auction house and seller agree on a "reserve price," which is the hidden minimum amount the seller will accept. Certain auction houses charge sellers a "buy-in" fee of 7% to 10% of the reserve price if the art doesn't attract a buyer.
If it does find a buyer, the auction house keeps a share of the price. Often, there's a sliding scale of 20% to 50% where percentages fall as prices rise. You may also owe capital gains tax of 28% of the change in the work's value between the time you inherit it and when you sell it.
Some auction houses partner with online auction portals like Bidsquare.com whose hundreds of auctioneers around the world can increase the number of people who'll see, and perhaps bid on, the art. Sellers can then learn how much similar works have sold for there.
Some boutique auction houses, like Gray's, will come to your home to evaluate the art for a small fee or will answer questions you email about your art.
—Sell It Yourself. To sell art online yourself, experts say Facebook Marketplace is a good place to start.You can quickly see what similar pieces sell for, and posting photos of your art and your price, you'll know quickly if there are potential buyers. "If it doesn't sell in a day on Facebook Marketplace, it's not going to sell there," says Paxton.
It's generally not worth your time to sell one or two ordinary pieces of art through a yard sale or garage sale.
—Donate to Charities. If you want to be charitable, you can give the art to local nonprofit agencies, such as art schools, museums, religious institutions or historical societies. "Donate the art to someone that cares about it," advises Paxton.
The Salvation Army, Goodwill and the Vietnam Veterans of America's "Pickup Please" donation program may accept your art. Call ahead, to be sure they will. As a rule, charities are more likely to accept small pieces rather than big ones.
—Give It Away. If you can't find buyers on Facebook Marketplace or eBay, you can try giving away your art through a local online Buy Nothing group to "someone who would really like it and will come pick it up for free," says Paxton.
—The Very Last Resort. Unless you're in a rush to unload your art and are absolutely certain it's not valuable, avoid calling a junk company. Says Paxton: "They're going to donate some of the art and are going to spend the time you didn't have to sell some of the art."