Woodstock’s Sylvia Leonard Wolf and the art of art appraisal

Sylvia Leonard Wolf in her Bearsville home. (Photo by Lynn Woods)

Through her longtime participation on the boards of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, the Woodstock Artists Association (WAAM) and the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, Sylvia Leonard Wolf has quietly helped shape the region’s art historical legacy. She is chair of the Exhibitions Committee at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild and a member of WAAM’s Permanent Collection Committee. She co-curated, with Tina Bromberg and Abigail Sturges, last fall’s “Woodstock Collects,” in which works from private collections were shown at the Guild’s Kleinert/James Gallery, WAAM, Center for Photography at Woodstock and Woodstock Historical Society. It was an ambitious undertaking that showcased the protean creative output of the historic art colony and the artists’ many interconnections.

Wolf brings a unique skillset to these roles: She is an appraiser, with 40 years’ experience specializing in American and European fine art and decorative arts. Certified by the Appraisers’ Association of America (she served 25 years on the board and two years as president), Wolf has appraised collections associated with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Guggenheim, Cooper Hewitt, Centre Pompidou, Tate Museum and a host of other institutional heavy-hitters. She has appraised everything from Abraham Zapruder’s famous film of the Kennedy assassination to works by Picasso, Philip Guston, Mary Frank and Joan Snyder to the estates of Louise Nevelson and Grandma Moses to the textiles of Annie Albers (wife of Joseph); many of her appraisals have been in the multi-millions of dollars. She has taught courses on her profession at New York University and lectured on the art of appraising and insuring fine art at NYU, the New School, American Institute of Conservators, New York City Bar Association, Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts and many other organizations and institutions.


Wolf grew up on New York City’s Upper West Side. She attended the High School of Music and Art – she played piano and violin – and spent weekends perusing the art museums and galleries with her mother, who worked in the fashion industry. She graduated from New York University, where she majored in French Literature and Art History, and also took Art History classes at the Institute of Fine Arts.

Shortly after graduating she got married, had three children and, after her husband, who formed his own book publishing company, got a job in a Swiss company, moved to Geneva. In Switzerland, Wolf, who spoke French, had many friends, browsed antique shops and flea markets, visited museums, got into photography and fell in love with the food markets, which prompted an interest in cooking that inspired the Cook’s Catalog, published by a company founded by her husband in collaboration with James Beard and Milton Glaser.

After four years in Switzerland, the family returned to the States, settling in Westchester. When Wolf and her husband divorced, she had to support her children and was searching for a profession. By chance she met another parent at her child’s school who was a personal property appraiser, and subsequently took courses to fill in the gaps in her knowledge at the New School and Columbia University. She joined the Appraisers’ Association of America, moved back to the City with her youngest son and was soon working full-time as an appraiser. She married a Danish artist, Poul Janus Ipsen, moved to a large loft in SoHo and renovated a weekend house in Phoenicia.

Currently Wolf lives with her third husband, Leonard Levitan, an exhibition planner and designer who also is a longtime board member of WAAM, at an idyllic property in Bearsville. An Asian-style wooden gateway – built by Wolf’s youngest son, James Wolf, who lives in Vietnam and founded a company specializing in bamboo construction and bamboo-frame bicycles – frames the entrance to her expansive gardens, which she planted herself after the couple purchased the house in 2009. The modern, spacious, light-filled house has winter views of surrounding woods and mountains through rows of glass doors and walls hung floor-to-ceiling with artworks. Many are by area artists and friends, including Yale Epstein, Manny Bromberg, Rob Goldfarb, Polly Law, Melinda Stickney-Gibson, Nancy Azara and the late Lenny Kislin and Pia Oste Alexander; the collection also includes works by Woodstock artists from the early and mid-20th century, such as Erik Carl Linden, Georgina Klitgaard and Konrad Kramer.

Wolf’s dog Nelly, a combination Jack Russell terrier/whippet, lounged on the sofa while Almanac Weekly reporter Lynn Woods interviewed Wolf about her life, career and community involvement:

Tell us the story about how the Kennedy assassination film came to be appraised.

Many people filmed the event, but Abraham Zapruder’s was the clearest. He had been given a new Bell & Howell eight-millimeter film camera and went down to Daley Plaza, which was not far from his office, to see Kennedy. His secretary realized he’d forgotten his camera and ran down and gave it to him. After the assassination, the FBI swooped down and took all the films [made by bystanders]. Time/Life offered Zapruder $150,000 to borrow the film and publish a portion of it. When they gave it back, two frames had been cut out. (I’ve actually examined the 100-foot-long film in the National Archives and with a magnifier saw where it was spliced together.) Eighteen years later, the government determined it should permanently own the film for possible future information. After the heirs of the Zapruder family deemed that the government’s offer of $1 million was too low, it was agreed that each party would hire their own appraisers and agree to a third-party arbitration process. I was one of the family’s appraisers.

How did you get that high-profile assignment?

NBC’s Today Show does an annual feature on the Kennedy assassination, and because it was known that compensation for the film was being discussed, they asked if someone in the Appraisers’ Association of America could talk about the value of the film. The Association’s director had a meeting conflict, so he asked me to do it instead. I spent days studying all the relevant factors of its value and estimated it as ranging from $10 million to $40 million. Two days after my TV appearance, I got a call from Skadden Arps, the law firm representing the family, asking if I’d be interested in writing a report and being part of the team. You can read about it in Robert Bennett’s In the Ring: The Trials of a Washington Lawyer (Crown, 2008).

How much did the government ultimately pay the family?

$18 million ($17 million, plus $1 million accrued interest).

You’ve appraised so many works of art for insurance purposes, estate and charitable gift tax purposes and for lawsuits, including a fascinating case concerning Louise Nevelson and a subsequent trial in New York State Supreme Court. What were the circumstances?

I appraised everything Nevelson produced from the time she was 75 to her death at age 88, in 1988. Pace Gallery promoted her, and she was the first American female sculptor in the 20th century to become famous. When she was 75, her son hired an attorney to incorporate his mother as a business whereby he would be president, with a $1 million annual salary, while hers was $25,000, plus all her expenses paid.

For 25 years, Nevelson had lived with an associate who had managed her affairs, and when the artist died, her son threatened to throw the woman out of Nevelson’s townhouse and take possession of all the art Nevelson had bequeathed to her. The associate turned to a friend, Jasper Johns, who took the story to The New York Times, which was read by the IRS, which brought a lawsuit. There were several complex legal issues at stake, but my assignment was only to render an opinion of the value of the art Nevelson had created in the last 13 years of her life.

I spent weeks appraising 4,000 prints, numerous sculptures and some jewelry, which the son had moved into a warehouse in Connecticut, cataloguing and photographing everything, including miscellaneous parts of broken furniture not yet incorporated into a finished “assemblage.” The values I ascribed to them were vastly different from the opposing side, so the case went to trial in the Supreme Court of New York State. The case was resolved by a private settlement.

Closer to home, you recently appraised Arthur Anderson’s historic collection of Woodstock art, consisting of 1,500 works, which he donated to the New York State Museum; Mary Frank’s works, owned by the artist; a major painting by Joan Mitchell, donated to a museum in the Midwest; the estate of Tom Gottsleben, who was a sculptor working in stone and crystals; paintings, drawings and prints by Philip Guston, one of which, at your suggestion, was donated to WAAM; and Harvey Fite’s works at Opus 40.

Fite’s work was challenging, because many of his freestanding pieces are not that distinctive from other artists’. There weren’t enough comparables, so I had to look sideways, at other artists from the region, in terms of the period, style, dimensions and aesthetic qualities.

I’ve also appraised all of the outdoor sculpture of the PepsiCo collection [which consists of works by internationally known artists and is displayed on the grounds of the corporate headquarters in Purchase, New York]. Many of these pieces were going to be moved to a conservation studio, so they needed to establish a baseline value for insurance purposes before they were touched.

You appraise both estates and donations. How are they different?

For estates, most often the heirs hope for values on the lower side, for tax reasons; whereas with donations – for example, to a museum – most people want the highest value possible for a charitable gift tax credit. Sometimes it’s a challenge to satisfy the client and not undermine your professionalism. If one does three appraisals that are successfully challenged by the IRS (meaning the donor is getting an unfair advantage by paying lower taxes), you will be penalized a percentage of the difference between the accurate value and the challenged “too-high” value, plus the IRS will no longer accept your appraisals for any IRS-related purpose. I try to mollify a client with unrealistic expectations by explaining that they, too, will be tied up for years in litigation and incur additional costs, and then they usually become reasonable. There’s some leeway, and as long as you can make a sound case, which I make every effort to do, you’re safe.

How does the IRS do the evaluation?

The IRS Art Review Panel in Washington, DC is composed of experts from every segment of the art world, who review every appraisal over $20,000 looking for inconsistencies between the appraised value and the fair market value (established auction or retail gallery price). Annual charitable contributions totaling $5,000 or more in any given year are reviewed on the state level.


Have you ever been challenged by the IRS?

Never, for the reasons cited already.

I’d like to add that most people have no idea of the amount of time it takes to create an unchallengeable appraisal. You need to research all the information about the artist, including the context of his/her body of work, and all the comparable figures in the current marketplace at auction and at the gallery level, so that the appraisal report conforms to the industry standards.

You recently appraised two portraits painted by John Vanderlyn, a Kingston native who was the first American artist to study in Europe, which were owned by the late Avery Smith and donated by him to the Friends of Historic Kingston. Vanderlyn is much less-known than several of his contemporaries. Did that make the job difficult?

The Vanderlyn portraits were fascinating because it gave me a window into the history of Kingston. They depict Helen and Henry Sharpe and their son, George Henry, who became a prominent 19th-century New York State statesman. During the Civil War, he recruited 1,500 soldiers from Ulster, Greene and Delaware Counties for the 120th Regiment. After the war he commissioned a bronze sculpture commemorating the fallen soldiers, which is installed at the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church. I made a value judgment on the portraits because Vanderlyn should be better-known than he is, despite having a monumental work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Appraising is not a science, but an art.

What specific factors do you consider when making an appraisal?

Who made the work/object, its size, uniqueness, condition, where it fits into the artist’s oeuvre, its historical importance and its provenance.

Provenance was especially pertinent when I appraised the Serge Sabarsky collection, which was bought by Ron Lauder and is the basis of the Neue Galerie in New York City. A large number of works by Egon Schiele are part of that collection, and I was unable to appraise most of his drawings because the provenance wasn’t clear. If there was a verifiable or reasonably reliable record of ownership of a work by a European artist until the 1930s, and then no record of it until it appears in an auction house decades later, it may indicate that the work was stolen by the Nazis from their Jewish owners. I’ve done several appraisals for the Holocaust Restitution Committee, including what a work of art would potentially be worth should it reappear. I don’t authenticate a work of art, but I need to practice due diligence to determine the provenance and the value.

Do you appraise other types of objects besides fine art?

I love and appraise decorative art, such as furniture, objects made of silver and metal, carpets and textiles and ceramics, as well as couturier and designer-made clothing. Accessories and apparel are a significant form of the decorative arts and reflect the society and the culture in which they are made. It’s rewarding to me that more museums and colleges throughout the country have developed departments to collect and study custom, artist-made and designer-label apparel.

How do you charge?

I charge a fee based on an hourly or project rate, unrelated to the value. However, if I’m appraising something that has a value of $100,000 versus $10,000, the fee will be higher because the amount of research required, and the responsibility of signing a legal document, simply is greater.

Do you have sideline businesses related to appraising?

No, I’m one of the few to make a living solely from appraising; most appraisers combine it with dealing or an art-related skill. However, back in the 1980s, I was a fine art consultant to a fine art insurance company, whose minimum threshold for a client was $10 million. For that job, I’d go, for example, to somebody’s Park Avenue apartment where there was a Velasquez painting over the fireplace insured for $5 million. I’d ask if the client used the fireplace, and if he or she said yes, because heat and soot could damage the condition of the painting, I might say either they have to move the painting to a different wall or we wouldn’t insure it.

How much do values of art change over time?

Fairly frequently, I’m asked to reevaluate appraisals done 10 to 20 years ago, because values do change, both up and down. (Insurance companies will say works of art should be appraised every three years, but most people resist, so I’d recommend between five and 10.) Contemporary art is the most volatile. Knowledgeable people follow which artists are getting good critical acclaim and which museums or collectors are acquiring their work. But contrary to popular opinion, art doesn’t always appreciate. Sometimes art by a forgotten artist will sit in a warehouse for years, because no one wants it – which, by the way, is common.

You did not grow up in Woodstock or have a direct family connection, but you are as dedicated as anyone to preserving its history. When did you first move to the area?

I started coming here in the early 1980s. Before moving to Bearsville, I owned a house in Phoenicia, which I loved; but I needed to be part of a larger community with more cultural activities. Woodstock is unique because it has such a deep history of creative people. So many of the earlier artists’ families have remained here because it’s a beautiful place to live and still values talent and artistry. The town has held itself apart from modernization and is focused on preservation. It’s a community of like-minded people.

You’ve dedicated much of your time and energy to two of Woodstock’s leading art institutions.

I was a trustee of WAAM and then became a director for at least 10 years, when the trustees and directors merged. After my term expired, I’ve remained active on the Permanent Collection Committee. WAAM accepts donated pieces and occasionally makes purchases with their acquisition fund (they occasionally divest as well). WAAM’s permanent collection numbers over 2,000 works, and you can see it online through the Hudson Valley Visual Arts Consortium. I am awed that in 1929 a group of artists formed this association. We need institutions to highlight and honor artists of unique and proven talent, whether or not they had commercial success.

I’m also extremely dedicated to the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild (on which I serve as a vice president on the board and as Exhibition Committee chair), whose motto is “It all started here” – which is true, because without Byrdcliffe, Woodstock wouldn’t be what it is today. A lot of artists associated with the early years of the Guild went on to form WAAM and the Maverick; and starting in 1906, the Art Students League held their summer classes in Woodstock, which became the Woodstock School of Art. Alexander Archipenko also established his art school here, so you get this tremendous amalgam of creative energy.

You’ve also been active as a curator.

A major show I curated with Tina Bromberg and Karen Walker was “Byrdcliffe’s Legacy,” to highlight the work and the lasting influence of the original painters, woodworkers, metalworkers, weavers and other craftspeople through the 1970s. Another significant project was creating “Woodstock Collects,” for which I was one of the developers, in tandem with my good friends, artist and Woodstock-raised Tina Bromberg and Abigail Sturges, whom I like to tease as “the mistress of le tout Woodstock.”

It was the first-ever collaborative show that included all five Woodstock arts organizations, and game-changing because, even though these organizations share interests and have many members in common, we’re also competing for the same funds from a limited market. The future requires even more collaborations on joint projects, and I very much look forward to participating in them.