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“So you see, monsieur, because collectors are now very eager for works by this artist, those two drawings you own are really worth quite a bit of money.”

I was approaching the triumphant conclusion of my report, delighted to have discovered that the pair of nudes — life-size drawings collected by my client years before — had risen about twenty-fold in value.  The client, a French collector who had amassed a fine body of twentieth century paintings, had called to inquire about two monumental charcoal drawings by hyperrealist painter Claudio Bravo.  Acquired inexpensively from a young artist decades before, he’d rarely thought about their value.  But the artist was now an established celebrity of the international art world, and his paintings were routinely setting price records at auction.  I had just sold a Claudio Bravo “package painting” for more than a million dollars, and as values for the paintings exploded, prices for drawings were also rising sharply.  Even the gentleman’s minor drawings were, by my lights, quite valuable.

Claudio Bravo, Mystic Package, sold in 2003 for $489,600. At the time it was the highest price paid for a Bravo work on paper, which inspired my client to reassess his own collection. Private Collection. Photo credit: Sotheby’s.

“Well,” the caller said, in a French accent thick enough to spread on toast, “if they’re worth some muh-nay, I might sell them.”

Claudio Bravo pastel, similar to the one described in this article.

“They are,” I replied, maybe just a little smugly.  “I’d say they’d fetch at least $20,000 apiece.”

A long pause was succeeded by a longer pause.

“Puh,” he exhaled in jovial contempt. “I thought you meant muh-nay.  For only forty thousand dollars, it’s not really worth the effort to sell them.”

Thus I learned a useful lesson: value is in the eye of the beholder.  So are terms like “important,” “valuable,” expensive,” “minor,” “worthless,” “collectible,” “decorative” and many others we use so loosely when assigning value to things people have lived with and loved.  To me, selling a drawing for twenty times what you’d paid for it sounded like a pretty good deal.  But not to a collector who knew that other works by the same artist were commanding twenty times twenty.

It’s what makes managing expectations so important, and so difficult. A treasured family heirloom may have enormous sentimental value that does not translate into market price.  An ugly painting no one wants may turn out to be an art market masterpiece (we’ve all heard stories of million-dollar documents discovered at yard sales).  More often, discrepancies and misunderstandings can be traced to our own very subjective sense of what “a lot” really means.

When mixed with the high emotions of inheritance, sibling rivalry, grief and expectation, it’s no wonder that even loving families can fight bitterly over how to divide a relative’s estate.  The combination of money, taste and family dynamics can be a combustible formula.  Because at the end of the day, it’s all relative.