Dealers and curators may be the public faces of the photography market, but there are a host of experts whose work goes on just off stage. Chief among them are appraisers, like longtime photography expert Sarah Morthland. Based in Chelsea, Morthland is principal appraiser at Archive Consulting and Management Services (ACMS), which she founded in 1998 with Robert Gurbo, who is also curator of the André Kertész Estate.
“An appraisal involves a value conclusion drawing on as many different aspects of the artwork and its circumstances as we can put into play,” says Morthland, speaking from her airy, light-filled office on West 26th Street.
Morthland’s appraisal of a single cased image of Abraham Lincoln, for example, was 60 pages long. The image, from the 1850s, was of a pre-presidential Lincoln that Morthland evaluated for an institution. “Lincoln was the first president to be elected through the dissemination of his likeness by photographic images, and the public became convinced of his honesty through the study of his facial features,” says Morthland.
Appraisers are not licensed, but Morthland is a member of the Appraisers Association of America, attends national conferences, and adheres to the standards of the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP). ACMS does appraisals for individuals as well as institutions, ranging from a single object to an entire estate. They spent a year appraising the estate of Cornell Capa for the International Center of Photography. The estate included photographs, books, written materials, and the estate of Robert Capa, including the Mexican Suitcase, the three boxes found in Mexico City of negatives by Robert Capa, Chim, and Gerda Taro, which had just been discovered. Morthland calls it “one of the most thrilling things we’ve done.”
Morthland grew up in Woodstock, NY, and after graduating with a degree in photography she began her career at the Center for Photography at Woodstock, co-founded by Howard Greenberg. She later rejoined Greenberg at his SoHo gallery in New York City. “I really learned the ropes from Howard,” she says. In 1996, she opened her own gallery, the first devoted to photography in Chelsea.
She moved into appraising a bit by happenstance: the photographer Bruce Cratsley, who died of AIDS in 1998, had asked her to be the artistic executor of his will. Through that process, she perceived the need for experts who could assist photographers with their archives, among other things.
What’s more, she says, “I found I was very interested in the complexity of doing an appraisal. It’s like putting together an enormous puzzle, even if it’s only one object. There’s the history of the object, the condition, the aesthetic qualities, where it was positioned within the artist’s oeuvre.” Morthland, Gurbo and their crew – Vicki Harris, Amy Mattern, and occasionally Vincent Cianni and Jennifer O’Neil – appraise everything from daguerreotypes to digital photography and even cameras. “We
call ourselves the Photo Detectives,” she says, “because it takes detective work.”