How I Created My Own Career as an Art and Antique Appraiser

how to become an antique appraiser

I am Sarah Reeder, the owner of Artifactual History® Appraisal and creator of the online course SILVER 101.  Rather than wait for a perfect dream job to materialize (which it likely never would), five years ago I created my own career as an art and antique appraiser by launching my firm Artifactual History® Appraisal.  

I appraise art and antiques including paintings, silver, furniture, ceramics, and midcentury modern design for a wide range of uses including insurance coverage, estate purposes, and equitable distribution.  Every day is different and I get to interact with amazing clients and help deepen their knowledge about their most treasured possessions.  

Most people think being an appraiser is like what we see represented on television with popular programs like “Antiques Roadshow,” and that is completely inaccurate.  The real experience of being an appraiser involves complex valuation research and the creation of meticulously detailed written appraisal reports that function as legal documents.  I like to describe what I do as a combination of lawyer, economist, and therapist! 

When I was in college and graduate school as an American Studies major, I didn’t even know that appraising was a career path.  I’ve always loved art, antiques, and history, but growing up I didn’t know any appraisers or recognize that appraising was a viable profession.  I feel that my educational background in American Studies at the College of William & Mary was excellent training for what I do now because it included a diverse blend of art history, museum studies, history, and popular culture.  

While in college I talked my way into an internship with the curator Linda Baumgarten at Colonial Williamsburg.  Linda became one my greatest mentors, and I spent the next several years shadowing her in the most wonderful apprenticeship where she generously shared her decades of expert knowledge with me.  In our time together, she gave me a vivid example of the power of positive mentorship that I try to carry on and embody in my own career.

I was offered a job as a historian after completing my master’s degree.  In my role as a traditional historian I deeply missed working with art and antique objects and eventually transferred into the auction field so I could work with them again.  My years in the auction industry were a great foundation for the work I do now because I researched a huge variety of different items, strengthening my generalist object education.  My roles as a subject specialist allowed me to work very closely with auction consignors, training which continues to influence my interactions with clients today.  

I met another great mentor in the auction industry, my then-boss Pat Powell who graciously shared his expertise, gave me many opportunities to grow and advance in my career, and allowed me to shadow him and join him on his consignment house calls.  The gentleness and dignity that imbued all of Pat’s interactions with consignors is the model that informs all of my work today.  From the humblest objects to the breathtakingly priceless, Pat treated everything and everyone with respect and kindness, an all-too-rare quality in my field.  I strive to follow in his model in my own business.

I continued to serve in subject specialist roles in the auction world following Pat’s retirement, and increasingly I also took on management responsibilities guiding the day-to-day operations of my workplaces.  This led to the discovery that I really enjoyed business management, but the vast majority of my time was spent cleaning up problems created by individuals outside of my purview.  I began daydreaming about how much more fun and effective it would be if I could design all the elements of business operations so things could run smoothly.  I thought “if I’m already running someone else’s business, why can’t I run my own business?”  Also, I’d come to the realization that while I loved researching art and antiques and I loved working closely with clients, I didn’t love selling the objects like I had to if I remained in the auction industry.

Fortunately, by this time I’d had the opportunity to meet several appraisers in my auction professional network and learn more about appraising as a career path.  I recognized that appraising was an excellent match for my talents and temperament, and I began the steps needed to have a career in this field.

Despite having extensive connoisseurship training in cataloging art and antiques by this point, I still had to go back to school to receive training to be a professional appraiser, which is a highly specialized skill set.  I would describe it as similar to being an accountant or lawyer in terms of how complex and tightly regulated the work is.  For my training, I chose to attend New York University, which at that time had a program in Appraisal Studies of Fine and Decorative Arts.  I did nearly all my coursework online at night through live distance learning while continuing to work full-time so I didn’t have to take out student loans.  It took several years of slogging through this dual work/study routine to complete my training, and when I finished I was finally able to leave the auction industry and launch my company Artifactual History® Appraisal.

This of course wasn’t the end of all the hard work needed to succeed.  I then began the process of obtaining membership in appraisal professional organizations, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to establish a career as an art and antique appraiser.  There are three major appraising professional organizations in the United States:  the Appraisers Association of America (AAA), the International Society of Appraisers (ISA), and the American Society of Appraisers (ASA).  I joined both the Appraisers Association of America and the International Society of Appraisers, which involved a very rigorous set of requirements including additional appraisal education and testing.  All of the organizations have different membership levels within them as well, all with added requirements to pass.  Currently I am a Certified Member of the International Society of Appraisers with the Private Client Services designation for working with High-Net-Worth Individuals and an Accredited Member of the Appraisers Association of America, and it took a lot of hard work and time to achieve these distinctions.  I also am always expanding my knowledge and staying up to date with new industry developments by enrolling in a wide range of continuing education classes, many of which are offered through the professional associations.

I read very widely, including books and online resources in my field, business and entrepreneurship literature, history, and fiction.  Two books I return to regularly are Greg McKeown’s Essentialism and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, which inspired my daily practice of writing each morning.   Writing articles has been an important tool in the growth of my career and starting my day with open-ended personal writing helps me stay fluid and comfortable composing with words. 

Part of why I read so broadly (besides my natural curiosity!) is that I find it helpful to track what’s happening across many different fields so I can then consider how I might innovate and implement new tools and developments in mine.  This learning approach was what first sparked my idea to create my online course SILVER 101:  Quickly Learn How To Identify Your Sterling Silver and Silverplate to Find the Valuable Items and Sort with Empowered Confidence.  I’d been following the explosion of online courses in the business and personal finance industries and thought the format would be well-suited for what I wanted to achieve in scaling the number of people I could help and expanding access to useful art and antique knowledge.  Fear about not knowing whether you have sterling silver or silverplated items in your collection is a common frustration among individuals with family silver, and I was excited to translate the successful educational process I’d created for my one-on-one clients to a scale where it could reach a much bigger audience.

While I was already extremely familiar with the silver content I wanted to include in my course, figuring out how to distill a very complicated topic into easily understandable concepts for someone I’d likely never meet was quite tricky.  I also spent a lot of time thinking about the design of my course, tailoring the format and layout to be accessible to differently abled people (with different levels of access to hearing and sight), and to suit both visual and audio learners.  I built the whole course myself, from the graphic design of the slides to recording my narration.  It was satisfying to directly create every single element without outsourcing it, and I learned new technical skills in the process.

Once I had a draft of the silver course completed I gathered a group of individuals I knew representing a range of different backgrounds and perspectives and whose opinions I respected and asked if they would be willing to serve as beta testers.  All of them graciously agreed, and their initial feedback and suggestions after taking my course were invaluable to me.  I incorporated all their feedback into an updated and improved version of the course, which became the one I released.  I would encourage anyone planning to create a similar project to consult with a trusted group of beta testers to hone and improve your product before launching it, and I’m grateful to my beta testers for their assistance.

I plan to expand my online courses in the future to include offerings beyond just SILVER 101, and I’m very excited about the potential of the medium for increasing access to useful knowledge.

Another rewarding project in my career has been Worthwhile Magazine™, which I founded several years ago with my good friend and fellow appraiser Courtney Ahlstrom Christy.  Worthwhile Magazine™ is a free online magazine dedicated to making useful information about art, appraising, and collecting accessible to both professionals and the general public.  We serve jointly as Co-Editors, and it has been immensely satisfying to be able to help people by sharing information about our field and having the opportunity to work with a fantastic range of contributors.  Early on in our development process we decided we would approach the magazine with a guiding spirit of fun and it has indeed been great fun to see it grow and flourish!

The biggest lesson I hope to share with readers of this article is the value in shifting from a passive mindset of waiting for someone to bestow a job on you towards an empowered approach where you start thinking about what opportunities you can create for yourself.  That may be still within the framework of a traditional job you gained through a formal interview process, but my own career path has been shaped most dramatically by the doors I built for myself and then walked through.

About the Author:  Sarah Reeder is the owner of Artifactual History® Appraisal and the creator of the online course SILVER 101, which can be enrolled in at https://artifactualhistory.teachable.com/p/silver-101.  She can be reached at info@afhappraisal.com and found online at www.artifactualhistory.com

Also read How to become an Art Therapist

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