Appraising Native American Antiquities – “Not Exactly Like Antiques Roadshow”

  by Aarin Richard, ISA

As an appraiser of antique Native American art, I’m often asked if what I do is like Antiques Roadshow. The answer is..…kind of. What occurs on that show is known as an oral appraisal in which they give valuation opinions. However, in real world scenarios, appraisals and the reasons they are required are far more complex. They are often used for official reasons and usually need to be in written form. They come in a variety of flavors and how they will be crafted and assembled is predicated on what is called the intended use, which can affect the type of value assigned. Yes, there are different types of values that can be given to the same item because it depends on what is happening with the item, i.e. do we need insurance or a quick liquidation. Knowing how to put all the pieces together, understanding how the objective affects the requirements and knowing how to draft a credible report for a specific use is the job of a qualified professional appraiser.

There are a lot of reasons people may need an appraisal. Tax deductions for charitable donations, estate tax or division, insurance coverage and divorce are just a few. For federal tax reporting purposes, the IRS requires that appraisals be performed by a qualified appraiser. This is someone who has met certain levels of defined competency and knows the established criteria for such appraisals. The days of a one page list with prices are long gone, unless its only used for one’s personal information.

With antiquities, appraisals can be challenging. This is especially true for American Indian art and artifacts. We deal in subtleties that can have enormous impact on value and it takes years of experience working with the material to perceive such nuances. We do have some testing procedures that can be used. For instance, we can test yarns in 19th century southwest textiles to determine the nature of the dyes used. This helps determine age, which in turn affects value. For other things such as beadwork, we must rely on our eyes and experience in identifying such things as shade differences in colors, which informs us of age. This is important because an 1870’s version of something will be of far greater value than a 1910 version, other things being equal.

Also, identification and descriptions must be specific. For instance it is not enough to state the item is a Navajo textile. Appraisers must identify what type of Navajo textile it is, what materials and dyes were used, note condition or restoration and properly date the item. With that information in hand, we can begin to do analysis and research, explore proper markets and finally make a determination of value or an estimation of cost.

While appraisers may have a good idea of value when they first look at an item, they have to justify and support their opinions with documented sales or price information of closely comparable items. What the viewers of Antiques Roadshow don’t see are the banks of people on computers behind the scenes doing research on the items selected to be on the show. So while the on-camera appraiser looks like he or she is just pulling the value off the top of their head, it likely has been researched, analyzed and corroborated prior to filming.

Aarin Richard is a member of the International Society of Appraisers. His company, Richard & Associates Art Appraisals, works with historic American Indian art. He can be reached at 505-913-7179 or through his website: