The Catalog of American Portraits, as well as the rest of the departments of the National Portrait Gallery, frequently receives public inquiries concerning objects (portraits in one form or another—paintings, sculpture, prints, photos) purchased at auctions, estate sales, or flea markets. Typically, the line of questioning goes:
Who is it—that is, who is the sitter featured in the work?
How much is it worth?
And typically, the answer from one of the NPG departments runs like this:
This work was created around (rough estimate of the date). The costuming and style of hair (or wig) are similar to (brief discussion of the costume/hair of the period). We are not allowed to appraise works, as we are a division of the federal government.
The subject of appraisals arises often, as most people are very interested in knowing the value of works they purchase, and of course, everyone hopes to have the next great discovery ready to take onto the set of Antiques Road Show. However, Smithsonian Directive 103, Section 7, Subsection K, is quite clear with respect to what is and what is not allowed concerning the appraisal of works:
Employees may not make estimates of monetary value (i.e., “appraisals”) of objects, materials, or specimens of the types collected by Smithsonian museums. Appraisals may be made solely for internal Smithsonian use, such as insurance valuations for loans.
However, other resources for the collector or inheritor exist, and the most common resource we suggest is the American Society of Appraisers (ASA). The ASA provides appraisers for not only works of art, but also real estate and many other forms of property.