What is the value of damaged goods? It’s a challenging question, primarily because there are so many factors to consider, not to mention that there is no one answer, much less a “right” answer. Appraising damaged and repaired artwork is especially difficult, because what one collector may consider acceptable, another will find unacceptable. The burden is on the appraiser to weigh the factors that lend or detract from desirability and, ultimately, determine what someone would be willing to pay for the piece.

In December of 2011, the right panel of Richard Avedon’s The Chicago 7, September 25, 1969, a mural-sized triptych printed in the early 1970’s, suffered water and contaminate damage when the roof leaked at the storage facility where the artwork was being kept. The piece, owned by the Avedon Foundation, was intended for a summer show at the Gagosian Gallery in New York but, instead, went to a photo conservation studio. As was appropriate, both the Foundation and their insurer, AXA Art Insurance, each hired a photography appraiser to assess the subsequent value of the damaged triptych. Both appraisers submitted their value conclusions after the print was cleaned and treated. What’s fascinating is that the conclusions of these two appraisals were not even remotely close to each other.

Having curated the photographs to be included in the upcoming exhibition, the Gagosian Gallery already had a prepared price list and the triptych of The Chicago 7, September 25, 1969 was listed as $2.5M. Knowing what the gallery had priced the piece at, the appraisers had a basis to work down from. The appraiser for AXA concluded that the artwork only lost 20% of its value, after treatment, despite the fact that damage was still evident. In contrast, the appraiser for the Foundation concluded that the artwork lost most of its value and was worth only 2%, or $50,000 of the original $2.5M price tag. Unable to reconcile the two opposing values, the Avedon Foundation is suing its insurer for shy of $2.5M and the case is now in front of the New York State Supreme Court (artnet News March 20, 2014).

It is understood that the water damaged 1970’s print of The Chicago 7 is mounted to linen (or similar fabric) and that the photographic paper and the cloth expanded and contracted in different ways when the water saturated the piece. As a consequence, the buckling or waving remains evident where the damage originally occurred. In addition, while the conservators cleared any staining and discoloration, they have no way of telling if they were 100% successful in removing or neutralizing all of the contaminates—a potential issue that only time will reveal.

At this juncture, there is still no final value conclusion. The presiding judge is moving the case forward (artnet News February 20, 2015) and may, in the process, hire a third appraiser to make an independent assessment. Whatever the conclusion, it will set precedent. That said, when it comes to reconciling the issues stemming from damage or deterioration, the ruling may also infer the point at which art becomes artifact.

—Jennifer Stoots, AAA