Price check 

Learning the value of art with appraiser Timothy Gordon

Collectors call the process of getting something appraised a rush—something I found out when I dragged a few items that weren’t even mine from my car, through the miserable winter wind and into the Dana Gallery last Saturday morning. A small crowd had already lined up for the event before the gallery opened at 10 a.m. and over the next three hours more than 100 streamed through the front door. A couple rolled in a sculpture on wheels, a young man hugged an abstract painting and all of them sat facing a seasoned appraiser with piles of what they hope is treasure.

Some don’t intend to sell. Others are prepared when gallery owner Dudley Dana offers to include their items in an upcoming collector’s resale auction on Feb. 6 —the main purpose for the appraisal event.

The antique and art appraisal world has grown in popularity, ignited by PBS’s “Antique Roadshow,” which first aired in 1997. But Timothy Gordon, the longtime Missoula-based appraiser hired by the Dana Gallery, likens the appraisal routine to a different entertainment phenomenon—“American Idol.”

“You look at these people and a lot of them are really hopeful,” he says. “It’s like somebody gets up and thinks that they’re a great singer and the panel of judges laughs at them. I’m always mad when they do that. People’s hopes are more important than the [money] side of the endeavor.”

Gordon calls himself a generalist. Whereas many appraisers on television and in the market specialize in one era or a handful of particular artists, Gordon tries to familiarize himself with everything, consulting specialists if need be. And unlike those appraisers on television, who get to research their clients’ objects ahead of time, Gordon—on this particular day—is mostly shooting from the hip. He’ll occasionally use the gallery’s computer for quick research on sites like AskArt.com, but, generally, he’s going on gut feeling from 20-plus years of experience.

“I’ve been buying and selling stuff and appraising for so long that you just get an innate sense when something is really stunning and really great,” he says.

Throughout the day, copies of classic paintings and nondescript originals emerge at no more than $75 to $100. But sometimes a gem surfaces. James Pool, for instance, brings in a lavish oil painting of Madame de Pompadour, mistress of King Louis XIV. Pool’s mother, a French war bride, once lived in the same building used by painter Carle Van Loo. While Pool’s painting isn’t signed by Van Loo, an old ink note on the back credits him for it. Pool has to confirm the note—it could have been painted by one of Van Loo’s many apprentices—but, if verified, the piece could be worth close to a million dollars, according to Gordon.

A couple people bring in local favorites: Jay Rummel prints, a Larry Pirnie painting and a sculpture by Walter Hook of the Flathead Monster made from nails and wood—each worth a couple thousand dollars, at least.

“Jay Rummel’s work is being recognized by everybody as being cool, and it used to be something you’d buy down at Charlie B’s and then get thumb tacks and hang it up,” says Gordon. “And Walter Hook, I’ve seen him do postmodernist abstract and do realism and all these funky styles…he’s a painter’s painter. Walter Hook could be shown in any gallery or any museum.”

Gordon began with antique appraisals around 1988 and worked his way into art not long after. In December 2008, he flew to London and appraised Princess Diana’s garment collection. Large estate recipients call him from all over the world to spend time reviewing their valuables.

“That’s also how good things come to the surface,” he says. “If there’s a death or somebody’s financial world is turning over, that’s when rare things get sold. Often times I’ll just not take commissions when that happens.”

Gordon says he loves talking with people, and all art and antiques are interesting to him because they tell him something about the person. Still, he admits he has his favorite types of art and antiques. High-end modern art is one of them and the other is historically important pieces.

“One time I had Marie Antoinette’s dress lost in my house,” he says, laughing. “I’ve had Lincoln pieces, too. [Recently] I was offered a John F. Kennedy manuscript called Prelude to Glory. It dawns on you how great these people were despite their [mortal] body and despite how small and shabby their possessions were. Incredible history-shaking things came out of them.”

This is the seventh art auction the Dana Gallery has hosted but the first time they had public appraisal events leading up to the show. It’s also the first time they’ve included antiques in addition to artwork.

“Last year we had everybody’s worst nightmare: throwing a party and nobody comes,” says Dana. “So we rearranged it a little differently this year and we brought in Tim. I think we’ll have to do this more often.”

When my number’s called, I hand over my borrowed items. There’s a 1927 pen and ink by Oscar Van Young of two characters—probably drawn for a magazine like Harper’s—worth anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500. The Venetian glass goose I hand over doesn’t have a signature. Judging by the rough glass frost, it isn’t outrageously valuable. He puts it at roughly $200, maybe as much as $400.

My mom, Dayl Fredrickson, ends up being one of the highlights of the day. She brings in American Indian items from Cutbank, where she grew up—a beaded purse, work gloves and a saddlebag. The saddlebag is dusty and falling apart, but Gordon says it’s museum quality and, if restored, worth $20,000 to $30,000.

After four hours of non-stop appraising, Gordon’s exhausted, but he can’t stop smiling.

“I love this work so much that I’ve even incorporated my people and my world around it,” he says. “The antique and art world is all quirky circumstances and proximity to history and the beauty that you see in things. I guess I’m a little nutty about it.”

Me too, as it turns out. I’ve got a pencil drawing of a piano composer all ready for another appraisal. Even if it doesn’t have much value, there might be a story behind it.

The Dana Gallery hosts another art and antique appraisal with Timothy Gordon Saturday, Jan. 31, from 10 AM to 2 PM. Free.
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