The Art of the Matter

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Collecting Tips From a Master Appraiser
Photography By Leah Friel

Making his way through the lobby of a Waikiki hotel, Philip Jelley, clad in a couture suit, dress shirt and tie, was easy to spot amid the tourists in wet bathing suits and slippers. Jelley is a senior vice president of the famous New York City auction house, Sotheby’s. He travels almost constantly, crafting appraisals for the collections of wealthy clients to seal in their trusts and estates.

“Sotheby’s sees me as a person who does art triage,” he says, settling into a chair at the poolside lounge. It’s Jelley’s job to look at objects collected over a lifetime and decide what is valuable and where the person is likely to get the most money if the item is sold.

“Every month I look at hundreds of items. Much of it isn’t worth much. Out of those hundreds, about 10 percent is interesting enough for me to refer on to our specialists,” he says.

In the art business Jelley is considered a generalist. That, says the man who began literally in the mailroom, has been his great strength. He rarely gets bogged down in details that might intrigue a specialist. Armed with a degree in art history and a passion for Art Deco and Nouveau, Jelley did everything from auctioneering to working for a high-end furniture line to qualify for his present position.

One person can’t know everything, he says, referring to himself as a “fine old wine.” Over the years he has learned to spot what is good, and in many cases has seen the same objects come on the market a couple of times. Being a generalist also means he doesn’t get buttonholed into only looking at one line of goods.

When he is asked what a cultured person should collect, he is quick to answer that it is important to buy what you like, and buy the best you can afford. “It’s not about the dollar investment value of a budding collection,” he says. “It’s about the process of building and learning.”

You build a collection, according to Jelley, by visiting museums and dealers showing the types of things you love. “Museums will train your eye,” he says. Read shelter magazines, ask experts about what you don’t know and understand that you’ll make mistakes. Everyone does.

“Even dealers and auction houses don’t always get it right,” he says. Jelley’s 10 criteria that affect the price of a collection are:

Authenticity. Is it the real thing, or a reproduction?

Condition. Has the integrity of the piece been compromised by poor refinishing or framing?

Rarity. If few items like it were made, the object is more valuable.

Historical Importance. The history associated with the object will make it more valuable.

Provenance. Objects worn or owned by famous people, either royal or political and entertainment personalities, often sell for a great deal more.

Size. Amazingly, very large objects that are hard to display often sell for a great deal less than items that can easily fit into someone’s living room.

Medium Used. How was an item made? Is it a precious metal or gemstone? Is it paper or oil?

Subject Matter. Frankly, very large photographs of African nudes are not going to sell as well as something easier to live with-say a French Impressionist lily pond.

Fashion. Fashion matters. People care about what their friends are collecting. Right now, he says, anything 18th or 19th century European or American is a steal simply because it isn’t in fashion. A Warhol, on the other hand, is hot, hot, hot. The market is very fluid.

Quality. Is it the best of its kind? In Hawai’i, he finds good ceramics, wood objects and paintings. He says he expects to find important objects from Oceania, but then “you never know.” Works on paper and textiles such as tapestries do not last long, or hold their value, in tropical climates because of “foxing” (brown spots on paper) and rotting.

“Quality jumps out at me,” Jelley says. This ability to spot what’s fine has gained him a reputation for accuracy with estimates of what an item will eventually bring at auction.

Anything with historical significance will be very valuable when collecting in Hawai’i. He also thinks late 19th century and early 20th century quilts in good condition will be valuable. Jelley personally collects Hawaiian calabashes and Anglo-Indian boxes. Which brings him to another collecting tip.

“A whole collection of something is often more valuable than just one or two items,” he says. “People want to be able to buy instant collections.”

He is a firm believer in supporting local art institutions. “People live in a place like Hawai’i because of the weather and the nice people. They then need to give back to the community.”

A big, red Jaguar is pulling up in the porte cochere of the hotel-it’s Jelley’s escort to his next engagement. Yet we sense it is hard for him to curtail reflecting on his passion for objects. In a minute he’s off to his next appointment; it’s a quick-fire life he never tires of living.

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