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Speaking of Art: Huntsville museum curator explains value of art

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.

A May auction netted a world record price of $448,125 for an original page of art from "Batman: The Dark Knight Returns."

It’s been amazing to follow the recent trend of record-breaking auction prices realized on major works of art ranging from Old Masters like Rembrandt to contemporary superstars like Andy Warhol.

Despite a lingering recession, the trend seems poised to continue. This summer, the London-based auction house Christie’s expects to raise more than $400 million in a series of blue-chip auctions, while rival auction house Sotheby’s anticipates raising nearly the same amount in its equivalent series of sales.

And stratospheric prices are not limited to the lofty realm of fine art. An auction of vintage comic art held in New York in May netted more than $6 million in sales, including a world record price of $448,125 for an original page of art from “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns.”

Which leads to the question of what makes art valuable?

In my many years as a museum curator, it is a question I am asked repeatedly, along with similar queries like “How much is this worth?” or “How do I know I’m getting a good deal on this purchase?” These are difficult questions to answer, because in the end, the value of art – along with that of antiques and collectibles – is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. As such, I always encourage aspiring collectors to buy what appeals to them, regardless of the ups and downs of the marketplace.

Anyone can collect art. It’s as easy as purchasing inexpensive reproductions of favorite works by Grandma Moses or Monet. For a relatively modest investment, one can buy original works of art in the form of limited edition fine prints or photographs. Because these are produced in set quantities, they are usually more affordable than one-of-a-kind oil paintings or watercolors.

A good place to begin a collection on a budget is to focus on artists who exhibit at local art fairs or arts league exhibitions. From there, of course, the sky is the limit.

The emotional connection a person feels toward a work of art or an entire collection creates personal value. One person may be drawn to 19th-century landscapes, while another may find value in mid-century modern furniture. Although personal value and preference can vary greatly from person to person, the methods by which an appreciation and passion for art is translated into dollars and cents remain the same. A variety of factors must be considered in determining an artwork’s value.

Originality is important in assessing value to any work of art, antique or collectible. Look for a legible signature, notation, stamp, seal or other typical identifying mark. If you are unsure your item is an original, consult a museum, gallery or qualified expert for assistance.

Condition is also important in assessing value. Obviously, if an object is damaged or repaired, it will likely have less value than one in good condition. If it has been restored, some of the lost value may be regained. If the restoration has not affected the structure or integrity of the object, there may not be a significant loss in value.

Provenance is the history of when and where the object was made, and who has owned it since that time. These factors can affect value, and can also add importance by the association of a famous name. For example, a mundane item owned by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt or Elizabeth Taylor can take on greater value simply because of the celebrity status of its previous owner.

For the most accurate determination of monetary value, consult a professional appraiser who is recognized as an authority in that type of art. Two basic types of appraisals are available.

The first is a Fair Market Value appraisal, and is generally used for tax purposes when an artwork is being donated to a museum or other nonprofit organization.

The second is a Replacement Value appraisal, which is used for insurance purposes. The Huntsville Museum of Art has a resource list of qualified appraisers on its website at

While your treasured artwork, antique or collectible may never approach the value of a Rembrandt or even a comic book original, the most important factor is that it provides you joy and inspiration. That is art’s true value.

Peter Baldaia is director of curatorial affairs at the Huntsville Museum of Art. He was formerly curator of exhibitions and collections at the Rockford Art Museum in Illinois, and curator at the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton, Mass. Baldaia holds a B.F.A. from Rhode Island College and a master’s degree in art history and museum studies from Boston University Graduate School.

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