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Q: I bought some beautiful paintings in Germany decades ago. I need to assess personal property for insurance purposes and all I can give my agent are rough guesses on their purchase price, which I think is far less than today's value.

A: To start on a positive note, I'm pleased this reader bought the paintings because he thinks they're beautiful. Smart collectors buy only things they like, because they may have the item(s) for a long while.

But he did leap to an untrue assumption. More on that later.

No images accompanied the query, but we were provided details from a bio received with the paintings. We learn that the artist, born in Italy in 1907, attended a non-specific art school, lived in Italy and Germany, admired the Italian Renaissance, and that his works can be found in unnamed public museums and private collections in Europe and America. Plus he won several Italian prizes.

The prizes, named for Italian cities or government entities, sound impressive - but doesn't everything in Italian? Grandiose awards for arts are common in Italy; some are prestigious, but many are not. And these are impossible to research.

The reader thinks he paid around $600 each for his paintings. That was a lot of money then.

We wonder: Was the seller a reputable dealer? Also, before handing over the sum, did the reader perform due diligence, checking out both the seller and the goods? Buying on the fly is asking for pot luck.

Research told us that the artist has no record at auction. As consequence, value on those paintings is as decorative objects. When that happens, value hinges on visual and artistic appeal, painterly quality, condition and even the frame.

Smart collectors will note that those determinants are both subjective and objective, and that's a tricky area. Super-smart collectors know that the value of paintings by an artist with no track record is basically whatever a buyer is willing to pay.

So, where does all this put our reader? He thinks his paintings are beautiful. He assumes that the works have appreciated. And he needs or wants to ascribe value.

We've said it here before: In collecting, age does not guarantee appreciation in value.

This scenario looks like a case for a credentialed appraiser who can eyeball the paintings, consider all variables and peg a range of current value. See below on how to find a local specialist.

Appraisals cost, but the owner will have an educated estimate of current value. Caveat: That does not ensure he will get that sum at sale.

We've repeatedly covered agent advice stating that household insurance is usually enough to cover paintings. Owners of valuable paintings generally know what they have.

Armed with this info, the reader is a smarter collector and can proceed with whatever route he chooses.

FYI: To find a professional appraiser in your area, key: (AAA), International Society of Appraisers at or American Society of Appraisers (ASA) at

MORE: Thanks to a reader who spotted our reply about disposing of a good, circa 1920s upright piano. Originally offered to a church, the instrument was declined because they preferred a keyboard. This writer suggests the donor try a senior center, rest home, community center and/or similar facilities.

UPCOMING: Sotheby's has announced that it will sell what's billed as the oldest book in America. Printed in 1640 by the Congregational Puritans, who emigrated to Massachusetts Bay in search of religious freedom, the Bay Psalm book will sell at auction in November. The seller is the Old South Church in Boston. The book is one of two Bay Psalm readers owned by the church. Results will benefit the church mission and ministry. Presale estimates are $15 million to $30 million.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to or write Danielle Arnet, c/o Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611. Please include an address in your query. Photos cannot be returned.