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How Much Is My Painting Worth?

From time to time, I get a request from a reader that provides me with a large, open-ended topic to think about. Here is one of those requests along with my response.

Hello Harley-

May I send you some photos of a painting my wife had left to her from her grandmother?

We are trying to find some information about the painting, so we can learn about it, and what its value might be for insurance purposes.

My wife loves the picture, and if it is valuable I would like to insure it right away.

I will send photos with the signature on the left-hand corner, as I cannot make it out.

Any help you can give would be greatly appreciated. I felt from reading about you that you are well experienced in abstract art, and I hope you can help us.

Thanks very much,

— Rick


What I hear you say is: If the painting is valuable, you want to insure it; otherwise not. However, regardless of it's value, you don't want to sell the painting. You very much want to keep it, because of it's sentimental value to your wife and your family.

So let's talk about the question: Why might you want insurance?

Do you want insurance so that, if the painting were to be stolen or damaged, you could file an insurance claim and get some money?

If that is the case, please realize that the money the insurance company pays you will not get back the art that is gone. Insurance doesn't protect art; nor does it help you appreciate art. It only helps you replace art, when possible; and if it is not possible, at least you can get some money.

Insurance companies insure things for a specific value. For example, if your wife's grandmother's painting could sell today for $1,500, and you were to lose it, you could — if you had insurance — file a claim and buy another $1,500 painting. Is that what you really want?

If so, you need to prove to an insurance company that the painting has a specific value. To do this, you have to answer the question: If I were to sell the painting right now, how much could I get for it? That value, in dollars, is what the insurance value would be.

If that is what you really want, the best suggestion I have is to go to a big city, show the painting to various gallery buyers, and see what they would give you for it, if you were willing to sell it right now. You don't have to actually sell it, you can just use that number as a value when you buy insurance. My advice is to make appointments in advance so you can see several buyers on the same day.

Remember, though, insurance doesn't protect art.

Since no amount of money could replace this particular work of art, I wonder if, in this situation, you might be better off assuming that the real value of the painting is that your wife inherited it from someone she loved. If so, the painting is much more than mere paint on canvas; it is a gift with a history that inspires warm memories for your wife and your family.

Perhaps, instead, the best way for you to show how much you value the painting is to learn how to take care of it and preserve it so that, one day, someone you love can inherit what sounds to me like a family heirloom. If this is the case, you may find that the real value of the painting cannot be expressed in dollars; nor can it be insured.

It can, however, be enjoyed and appreciated — which is probably why the artist painted it in the first place.

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