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Is there a fortune in your attic?

Take a closer look at what’s hanging on your walls or go rummaging through the attic – a small fortune may be hiding in your home.

Gordon Pape wonders if there's fine art hiding in your homeBy Gordon Pape, Editor and Publisher

Fine art can be worth thousands.

I enjoy fine art – my grandfather was a landscape painter and his oil canvases hang on the walls of my house.

But I did not inherit his talent and have no expertise in the field, beyond knowing what I like and don’t like.

As a result, I have never invested in art and don’t pretend to know how to value a painting or a sculpture. I’m aware that some people have struck it rich with works they found in a corner of the attic (I watch Antiques Roadshow on occasion). But I’m not one of them.

In fact, I had never been to an art auction until very recently. I’d seen them portrayed in movies (North by Northwest, The First Wives Club, etc.) but never actually attended one.

That changed when I was invited to an auction of Canadian fine art at Waddington’s in Toronto. The scene was almost exactly as I’d seen it on film – potential buyers equipped with numbered bidding paddles sipping on free coffee, a bank of desks where employees sat ready to accept phone bids from out-of-town buyers, and a nattily-dressed auctioneer who stood behind a lectern on a raised dais where he could view the entire room and spot any bids.

The catalogue listed 138 items to be sold. I thought it was going to take all night. Nowhere near that! Thousands of dollars changed so quickly it was hard to keep up. Within three hours, 111 of the works had been sold for a total value of about $2.5 million.

Several paintings by Group of Seven artists went in minutes for what I thought to be bargain prices of under $20,000. Others by artists I was not familiar sold at what seemed to be remarkably high levels.

For example, an oil by Peter Clapham Sheppard titled Elizabeth Street Toronto, which had been valued at between $40,000 and $60,000, went for an eye-popping $204,000 after some spirited bidding between two collectors in the room and a telephone buyer.

I had never heard of Sheppard, who did most of his work in the 1920s and 1930s, when he was overshadowed by the Group of Seven. He died in 1965, never having achieved wide recognition in his lifetime. It was only in recent years that collectors discovered him, and his reputation was enhanced by a new book written by art historian Tom Smart titled Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work.

Another revelation was a painting by contemporary artist Ivan Kenneth Eyre titled Asessippi. It’s a landscape painted from memory of a river valley on the Manitoba-Saskatchewan border that was appraised at between $60,000 and $80,000. It sold for more than double the higher figure, at $192,000.

Both those paintings brought in more than the highest priced Group of Seven offering, an oil on panel work by Lawren Harris titled Watertower, Circa 1919. It went for $144,000, around the mid-point of its appraised value.

Do you have a masterpiece hiding in plain sight?

I spoke by phone with Stephen Ranger, Waddington’s Vice-President Fine Arts. He said that most paintings don’t have commercial value but about five per cent might be worth some money.

If you find something you think might fall into that group, look for a signature and, even better, a date. It’s usually found in the lower right-hand corner or on the back. “In fact, the back may reveal a lot about the painting and its history,” said Mr. Ranger. Besides a signature or date there may be gallery labels or other clues about previous owners and where it came from (its ‘provenance’).

Don’t remove a painting from its frame. It may be grimy and dusty, but an original frame may enhance the value.

Take a picture and send it to Waddington’s or some other reputable auction house for an evaluation (usually free). If you have several pieces, a representative of the company may arrange a visit to evaluate the whole collection.

Sellers pay the auction house a commission of 20 per cent on works that sell for under $10,000. The rate drops to as low as three to four per cent on more expensive items. Buyers pay a 20 per cent commission.

And what if you want to start collecting art yourself, in hopes of some windfall profits in future years? Mr. Ranger says to do some extensive research, attend auctions to see which artists are in demand, and to buy the best works you can afford.

As for my grandfather’s paintings, they’re going to stay where they are. Even if they were worth thousands (they’re not), I wouldn’t part with them. They are all that’s left of him, and that makes them priceless!