Look, Look, Look: A Conversation with Fine Art Appraiser, Jane Cofer

Posted by Allison Radomski on

Long before she was one of Atlanta’s busiest fine art appraisers, Jane Cofer was a photographer. Her love for the medium led her to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she earned a BFA in photography. After college, Jane shifted her focus from taking pictures to a career in television. In this midst of her professional change, Jane’s love for photography found another outlet: collecting. After a decade of working in New York City, Jane found her way back to her hometown of Atlanta, a move that offered her another way to experience her love for the medium. She took a job at the High Museum working on an exhibition of Elton John’s personal photography collection. She went on to study appraisal at NYU and began her appraisal career in earnest. She founded Art Matters LLC in 2000 and since then, Jane has made a career out of her love of photographs and her passion for collecting. 

Jane Cofer of Art Matters LLC in Atlanta

Thanks to her expertise as an appraiser, Jane offers a unique perspective on the art (and the business) of collecting photographs. During our interview, Jane shared what her profession has taught her about collecting:


HIP: Why don’t you introduce yourself for our readers, Jane?

JC: I’m Jane Cofer, and I was born and raised in Atlanta. I left to go to school at RISD. After that I spent ten years working in New York and during that time, I worked in television, specifically as a producer for various commercials. I came back to Atlanta in 2000 and that’s when I decided to become an art appraiser. And here I am now, twenty years later, still working in the business.


HIP: How did you make that shift from artist to art appraiser?

JC: I realized after art school that I wasn’t totally cut out to be an artist. Quite frankly, I wanted more financial stability and working in television gave me that. But through it all, I always collected photographs. Jane Jackson of the Jackson Fine Art Gallery here in Atlanta really mentored me as a collector and encouraged me to turn those skills into a profession. She set me up with a job at the High Museum. This was all happening when “Antiques Roadshow” was really getting big, and I thought, how hard could it be? It wasn’t until I started taking classes in the methodology of appraising that I learned about everything it entailed. For instance, there are certain documents you need to draft and certain pieces of information insurance companies need. There are a lot of formalities in the appraisal process. It’s not like people call me over to their houses and I can just look at something and give them a number. There’s much more to the process. Plus, now I have twenty years of experience. I’ve learned a lot about appraising just by doing it.


HIP: Tell us more about the formal process of an appraisal. Where do you even begin?

JC: It starts with a phone call. Someone tells me they have a photograph that needs an appraisal. They also tell us why they need it. For instance, you might need an appraisal so you can insure the item. We always start off by giving an estimate of how long it will take. Different appraisers do it differently, but an hourly rate is usually best because it stays within ethical boundaries. For instance, it prevents an appraiser from charging more to appraise something like, say, a Picasso. An hourly rate is a way of guaranteeing fairness on my part. From there, I inspect the piece in person and take lots of notes. Then I research the item, which might involve contacting auction houses or galleries to get a verified history of the item’s selling price. You really need to know the history and the complexities of what you’re looking at. Once I complete my research, I write a formal appraisal document, and I use a specific language that’s required by insurers and appraiser associations. 


HIP: It sounds like you’re creating a legal document. 

JC: That’s exactly what it is. And it’s under the same level of confidentiality as a fiduciary transaction. There’s definitely a level of legal professionalism in appraising. 


HIP: What else goes into the appraisal process?

JC: Well, it’s important to know the purpose of the appraisal. For instance, if you’re appraising an item for insurance purposes, then you need to find out the retail value. If you’re appraising a piece for a charitable donation (if someone is donating a photograph to an exhibition or to an institution), then you need to know the fair market value. 


HIP: What are the main reasons why people seek out appraisals?

JC: Getting a piece insured is a big one. Charitable donations are also big. People also seek out appraisals when they’re putting together their will and want to know what they have. 


HIP: What are some of the most interesting appraisals that you’ve done?

JC: You know, I’d say that my favorite appraisals are for collections that were clearly put together with a lot of passion. And it doesn’t have to be a collection that has a lot of value. Just working on them is really inspiring. It’s fun to hear a collector walk me through their collection and tell me the story of each piece. Of course, I have a passion for photography, so I love a good photography collection. It’s so much fun to discover work that I didn’t know about or to see an artist’s work in a new context. That’s always exciting for me. I love that I get to learn something new in the process. Seeing other people’s collections inspires me to think outside the box and gives me new ideas for what I want to do with my own collection. 


HIP: In your opinion, what makes a really outstanding collection of photographs?
JC: Anything that’s put together out of a passion, or a collection that reflects a different way of seeing. When you meet collectors like that, you can tell it was never about the money. They collect because they’re excited about what they see, and you can tell it’s a collection of love. Just listening to someone get excited about their collection is great. Plus, it’s just fun to see how a person’s collection really fits into their home or how it fits them as a person. It’s almost like the person matches their collection. It’s just so genuine and natural. You can really see the passion behind what they do.


HIP: What has your work career in appraisal taught you about collecting? How has your professional life influenced your personal collecting?

JC: Well, it’s helped me understand how collecting is a balance of passion and connoisseurship. For instance, I have a photograph by Elliott Erwitt. I’ve always loved his work, and I’ve appraised a lot of his modern prints. In photography, you have a vintage print, which is made around the same time as the negative, and then you have a modern print, which might still be done by the artist but it’s made a lot later. Erwitt is one of those photographers who never made vintage editions of their prints. That started happening later in the 1970s and really caught on with Ansel Adams. I love this photograph in particular because it’s one of those rare vintage prints. I love the photograph itself, but there’s also all this extra information on the back of the print, which helps verify its authenticity as an older, vintage print. You can see it has his signature, the title, the date, and his personal stamp. There are also notes from the printing of the negative, some other notations, and a stamp from the famous Magnum Photos agency, which Erwitt was a member of. There are all these other interesting characteristics that make it more than just a photograph. They make the photograph extra special and give it more value. 

That perspective on photography has shaped my own collection. I collect photographs of women and girls, but I don’t want just any photograph. Now I look for these kinds of details. I think being an appraiser has made me more thoughtful about my choices. I still buy what I love, but now I’m more aware of these other elements. It’s another level of things to look for beyond the aesthetics. But of course, a collection always starts with the aesthetics. Before anything else, you need to feel attracted to a certain image. You should love the beauty of a photograph before you start worrying about that additional stuff. 


HIP: Do you have any advice for people who are just getting into collecting photographs? Are there any big do’s or don’t’s?

JC: I think the biggest thing is to look, look, look. Go to museum shows, go to galleries, look in books. Really, what you need to do is train your eye to seeing art. And you’re not just seeing, you’re also learning. You learn about where the artist is from and what they were doing. There’s a lot of research. It’s a matter of improving your taste and knowing a lot about what you’re looking at. But at the same time, there are different ways of expressing your feelings about art. It’s good to learn, but it’s also okay to have a gut reaction to a piece. It’s okay to love something just because it hits you in your gut. Sometimes, your feelings are bigger than words and you just need to go with your instincts. That’s my advice: Go see things. Galleries are stores. Gallerists know a lot and they love to talk about their pieces, so they’re happy to answer questions.


HIP: Are there any big don’t’s? Are there certain pitfalls to avoid?

JC: I think the biggest mistake that people make is getting caught up in trends. Collecting should be a personal journey. Don’t buy something just because other people are buying it or because it’ll look good with your sofa and drapes. Your living room can be rearranged or repainted, but buying a piece is a big commitment. You want art that can endure. Have the courage to buy what speaks to you and don’t get caught up in trends. 


HIP: I want to talk more about the value of prints versus the value of negatives. Most people assign more value to prints than they do to negatives. Can you say a bit more about that?

JC: It’s always been interesting to me that negatives don’t have a lot of value. One of my internships in college was at a place called Art and Commerce, and they represented all these photographers I’d just die for, like Annie Leibovitz and Helmut Newton. One of my jobs was to organize Steven Meisel’s negatives. It made me realize you need to go through a lot of shots before you get, you know, the one. 

That’s a big reason why the positive has so much more value, because the artist has chosen it out of all their negatives. They’ve committed to it, they’ve made prints, and they’ve put them out into the world to see. Really, a print is the product of a lot of trial and error. The value of negatives is pretty minimal compared to that. But, the value that negatives do have comes from their ability to reveal the process that the photographer went through. The negative shows how these famous photographers like Annie Leibovitz or Helmut Newton didn’t just go out there and take one amazing shot. You get to see the whole process, which might be why most negatives typically end up in more institutional settings. Negatives have archival value.


HIP: How do you appraise a photograph if you don’t know who took it? Or, if you don’t know whether it’s a vintage print or a modern print?

JC: That definitely happens. Sometimes you’ll have an artist’s signature, but it’s just too messy for you to read. In that situation, you want to start by deciphering the medium. For instance, is it a photogravure? Is it a silver gelatin print? Then, you want to search for comparables. You want to figure out the context of the image. For instance, what’s the subject? When was it taken? And, how does it compare with other images that were being taken at the time? If you can find similar photographs and find out what they’re worth, then you can get a sense for what a photograph is worth, even if you don’t know everything about it.


HIP: In your opinion, as an appraiser and as a photographer, how do the older processes of darkroom printing compare to what we can do with digital methods? 

JC: Well, that really takes you back to the whole question of vintage prints versus modern prints. That reminds me of when I wanted to buy a photograph by Abelardo Morell. When it first came to market, it was a silver gelatin print. But when I got the invoice, they said it was going to be an inkjet print, and I was upset about it. That said, the digital print had his endorsement, but still, I really wanted my silver gelatin print. 

Here’s the thing: Whether it was conscious or not, the photographer was taking the photograph with the knowledge that he’d have to be using a certain process for making the print. He was taking that photograph with the silver gelatin process in mind. So, a digital print is going to take on a whole new modern life, one that’s different from what the photographer originally imagined. It’s a way of revisiting an image but in a new way. During a digital process, you may be going back and cleaning the image or scanning it differently. It’s a different interpretation of the photographer’s original work.


HIP: It’s like a literary translation. Different translators will have different interpretations. The translation becomes a work of art in itself.

JC: Yeah, definitely. You’re putting a modern stamp on it and making it a new thing.


HIP: What are some of your favorite photographs that are in your personal collection?

JC: I recently bought a Richard Learoyd. He’s a British photographer and he does camera obscura portraits. This one is of a woman named Agnes, who he’s photographed for years. You can really feel their special relationship in this photo. And since it’s camera obscura, she has to hold that pose for a long time, which is interesting to me.

I also just got one of my favorite Cartier-Bresson photographs, one that I’ve coveted for so long. To me, this is just the ultimate photograph. It’s called Gold Rush, Shanghai, and you can see these people just rushing the bank to get their money before Mao came. But to me, the framing of the image is so powerful. You can really feel all the bodies that are squeezed in there, and you can see all of these different facial expressions too.


HIP: There’s a lot of emotion in such a small, contained space.

JC: It’s just great. 


HIP: Any other favorites?

JC: I’ll show you a few more. I get so excited. This one is by Rineke Dijkstra, who’s known for taking large portraits. Mine is of a little girl who looks so commanding on her scooter. I just happened to come across this photograph right around the time my father passed away. I kept going back and forth about whether I should get it. And then, when I did finally get it, I saw it had my father’s endorsement on it, with the little “love Pop” inscription on the scooter. It seems silly, but when you talk about different layers of emotional response to an image, that’s an example of it. 


Rineke Dijkstra

Parque de la Ciudadela, Barcelona, June 4, 2005, 2005
Archival inkjet print
Image: 29 1/2 x 37 in. (75 x 94 cm)
Frame: 42 3/4 x 50 x 1 1/2 in. (108.6 x 127 x 3.8 cm)


 HIP: The story of the photograph is also a story about you.

JC: That’s right. I also like how this photographer creates images that are reminiscent of other artworks. With this one, the background sort of looks like a Monet painting.

My last one is a self-portrait by Zanele Muholi (they/them), who is a South African photographer. Muholi started out with a series called “Faces and Phases,” which documents LGBTQ people in South Africa. Muholi chose the title for the series because of how people are always saying being gay is “just a phase.” Muholi also does self-portraits in which they wear various costumes based on whatever materials are available. In this one, Muholi is posing in their apartment, and these tubes on their head are actually tubes from the washing machine and dryer. And there are also rolls of tape on their head too, and the stripes in the background are made out of toilet paper. It’s meant to be a tribute to Muholi’s mother, who was a domestic worker in South Africa. Actually, we had a party at my house in honor of Muholi and they actually were here. Muholi wanted to make a self-portrait in my home (pictured below). At the time, it was around Halloween so they took these Halloween decorations from our yard and some cardboard and put it all in their hair. I found out later that this self-portrait is also in Jay-Z’s office in New York. 


HIP: It’s so interesting how Muholi uses elements of their environment as part of the portrait.

JC: I knew I wanted to own some of their work after I saw “Faces and Phases.” I love a good portrait, and I could just tell that there was a level of empathy and communication between this photographer and their subjects. At first, I was a little hesitant. I wasn’t sure what owning a picture like this would say about me. It’s the kind of photograph some people might find controversial. But I decided to just go for it. It goes back to the whole courage thing. When you collect, you are putting yourself out there in a particular way, and people might draw all kinds of conclusions about you. You need to be willing to own your decisions and not care what others think. You need to collect for yourself and you need to do it because it makes you happy. You can’t care what others think. 


HIP: What is it about portraits in particular that speak to you?

JC: You know, I’m not sure. My daughter thinks I’m crazy. She says it’s creepy to have a bunch of strangers staring at you.


HIP: I never thought about it that way, but actually, that makes sense. I guess it is creepy. 

JC: When I was first collecting, I thought I was going to do it differently. For one thing, I never thought I’d buy any color photography, and two, I never thought I’d get any portraits. I was like, why would I have all these other people just hanging around in my house? It’s funny though. When I first found out that I was having a daughter, something just changed in me. I suddenly wanted portraits of girls. I think it’s because good portraits really speak to people. A good portrait can convey so much empathy, even with a simple gesture. I mean, in Zanele’s portrait, there’s all this strength and beauty and vulnerability. And the girl on the scooter -- in that one moment, she looks so proud of what she has. She’s so proud of her scooter. And in the Learoyd photograph, Agnes looks so peaceful, but I also wonder what she’s thinking while she’s posing and what’s happening with her inner life. Those reactions just started happening for me. Portraits began to reach out and grab me. 


HIP: How does someone take a good portrait? How does the photographer make the magic happen?

JC: The ability to take a good portrait really is a gift. I don’t know if I can explain it. Obviously the photographer has to have some kind of connection with the subject. But with the girl in the park, Dijkstra just asked if she wanted to be in a photograph. I think that’s where you see the gift for taking a good portrait, that ability to see something in a particular way. Maybe it’s just about being in the right place at the right time and knowing how to capture a decisive moment. I wish I knew for sure. 


HIP: Is there a difference between appraising pieces of photojournalism versus fine art photography? On the one hand, you could say that a good picture is a good picture, and it might not matter why it was taken. But on the other hand, does the intent have some influence on value?

JC: It’s interesting. You have photographers like Cartier-Bresson or Elliott Erwitt who really pushed photojournalism to this new level of artistry and who cross over in their own way. But often, there does seem to be a price distinction. A work by a documentary photographer can be valued less than a photograph that’s considered fine art. Then again, the whole pricing thing just blows my mind. 


HIP: Any other words of wisdom as we conclude?

JC: This conversation has made me think about something my dad used to say. He would always tell me, “Only one percent of people are really, truly curious.” I think there’s something to that. I think we are losing our sense of curiosity, our willingness to ask questions, and the desire to really understand people. It’s so important we keep looking at the world in new ways, and art allows us to do that. Art helps us stay curious. We need to hold onto that.


 This article was originally published by WorthPoint on WorthPoint.com.


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