People have figured out all kinds of clever things to do with telephones, but Carol Prisant and her son Barden may have scored a first. For the past year or so, they have been operating a phone-in art-appraisal service, estimating the value of paintings without ever laying eyes on the works in question. Their service, called Telepraisal, is based in Roslyn, N.Y. Its secret is a computerized catalog containing names of 50,000 artists, 600,000 prices, and records of sales over the past five years.
Here is how it works: A customer calls a toll-free number and tells the Telepraisal operator the name of the artist, the date of the painting (if it is known), the dimensions, and the subject matter. The operator feeds all of this into the computer, which immediately spits out listings of other paintings by that artist sold in recent years. Telepraisal then uses this data to estimate the market value of the customer's painting. In addition, the company will help the customer locate the artist (if he or she is alive), as well as potential buyers. Fees range from $15 to $30, depending on the services provided.
The Prisants have some background in the field: Carol Prisant was an antique dealer and her son has a degree in art history from Yale University. Since launching the service in October 1982, they have appraised about 4,000 paintings bu phone, some of which have been quite valuable, according to Carol.
A Telepraisal operator recently told one bewildered client, for example, that her old painting -- by American Impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke -- was worth between $15,000 and $20,000. After the customer sent in a photo, the Prisants lined up an offer of $40,000 which the customer turned down. "We often baffle people when we start talking about so much money, says Carol Prisant.
Among the baffled may soon be the old-line auction houses like Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc. and Christie, Manson & Woods International Inc., which offer appraisal services of their own. For the moment however they intend to continue operating on the old-line principle that seeing is believing.