As any astute collector will attest, determinants of value as it pertains to art and antiques include: provenance, artist/maker, quality, rarity and condition. A persuasive case can be made that all other factors affecting worth being equal, in the modern era, condition, if overly poor, trumps the rest in the mind of both the collector and appraiser alike.
While items offered at auction are typically sold to the highest bidder on an ‘as is’ basis (caveat emptor), knowledgeable, and sometimes even the uninitiated have been trained to become apprised of all that may be good and bad about an artwork or antique’s current state, vis-à-vis its unadulterated day/year of initial conception. And so, the term ‘condition report’ has become part of the everyday vernacular in the mostly secondary (resale/auction) market. The art newbie and cognoscenti alike attend gallery and museum shows and form opinions about exhibitions based largely on quality and content; rarely (at least in the case of the more casual viewer) does the attendee stare at a Zorn portrait or Cezanne landscape or Claesz still life and wonder if the canvas has been re-lined or just how much of part of the canvas has been visited by the hand of a restorer. The situation could hardly be more different as it pertains to art auctions, where concern as to the degree which an object departs from its original, pristine state borders on the obsessive.
So, just what is a potential auction bidder in 2017 asking a specialist such as yours truly for a ‘condition report,’ just what is it that they want to know? Before addressing that question, the specialist in charge (or person charged with the duty of providing the ‘condition report’) understands that while the auction house is solely an agent for the seller, also known as the consignor, the potential buyer is, in fact, really asking: “From a condition-related standpoint, is this something I should buy?”
While arguably one auctioneer or appraiser or restorer may well differ from another in their respective definitions of what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘very good’ or ‘excellent’ condition, the following are typically considered as those things that make or break an object’s condition. Paintings on canvas: is the painting re-lined (i.e. is there a backing canvas affixed to the original canvas, via glue or wax, for example); has the painting been retouched by a restorer, and if so, to what degree and in what part(s) of the canvas; is the painting in need of a cleaning (or the converse, which has now become almost routine: “Do you think the painting will lighten up if I have it cleaned?”…a reflection of the fact that in the mind of many collectors, dark pictures are less desirable than lighter toned pictures); is the frame (if framed) original, or at least of the period; and to cite a guesstimate of the degree to which a painting has been restored.
The pesky imperfections that can turn a bidder off from buying a work on paper – whether a drawing, gouache or drypoint – can be even peskier than those which affect an oil painting: the existence of tiny, unobtrusive mold (foxing) specs; the palest of pale toning that can even slightly darken a work on paper based on exposure to light over time; the most minor of abrasions to portions of a sheet’s surface; minor browning along the very outer edges of a sheet (time staining) that have no real relation to the image area; and if a sheet has been reduced, even a tiny bit, from its original size, why such trimming was done and by whom (which is always nearly impossible for the auction specialist or appraiser to answer, unless one was there witnessing the alteration).
Needless to say, for the most part, though not in all cases of course, the older the painting, work on paper, sculpture or other form of art or antique, the more likely the chances that that object has not remained in its original, pristine state given the ravages of time, it's being countlessly (mis)handled, transported and having changed hands over what may be decades or even centuries. As such, contemporary works tend on balance to be less susceptible to having condition problems, though some ‘wet paint’ and straight-from-studio creations have been discovered to have their own litany of problems, including how one ‘restores’ a work made with such unconventional materials as animal dung when it begins to degrade or disintegrate.
Do all auction goers ask auction houses for a ‘condition report?’ The answer is: no. Should they? Probably.