Cowley Abbott: Bridging the Gap Between Traditional Auction Services and the Online Art Marketplace - Art Gallery of Hamilton (2023)

Are you curious about the potential value of an artwork or art object in your collection? Cowley Abbott, one of Canada’s leading art auctioneers and appraisers, regularly travel across Canada and beyond to assist collectors with details, guidance, and valuations related to their collections.

If you visited the Gallery this past fall-winter season, you would have seen Cowley Abbott Fine Art as a sponsor of the Tom Thomson? The Art of Authentication exhibition and host of our December Valuation Day. If you thought you’d missed your chance at an appraisal from one of Canada’s leading art auctioneers and appraisers, we’re proud to announce that Cowley Abbott will be back this Spring to host another Valuation Day on May 1, 2022 from 10 am – 4 pm.

We sat down with managing partners and owners, Rob Cowley and Lydia Abbott, to learn more about their work and how their involvement with the AGH started and has continued ever since.

1. First off, how did you both get started in the fine art industry? Did you always plan on the industry you’re in now?

Rob: I began my career in the auction industry through a chance placement with an employment agency in 2000. I had completed my fine arts degree at the University of Ottawa a few years earlier and was placed at a Toronto-based auction house (in the accounting office). When Joyner Fine Art merged with the firm a couple of years later, I became their administrator and had the privilege to be trained by some of our country’s leading auction professionals, learning the processes related to art appraisal, research and auctioneering. After thirteen years with the company, we started Cowley Abbott.

Lydia: I was completing my undergraduate degree at McGill University when I applied to a position at an auction company in Montreal. I knew very little about the industry, but it was a great opportunity to immerse myself in the Canadian art market after having studied art history in university. I thought that I would be a university professor one day, however, after gaining invaluable experience in the auction world, I realized that I had discovered my passion as an art specialist. With over twenty years of combined experience in the field when we started Cowley Abbott, Rob and I certainly knew that this was our calling!

Our specialists were able to nip out between appraisal appointments to view the incredible exhibitions on @at_theagh! William Kurelek! Maud Lewis! Tom Thomson! Andy Warhol! And so, so much more!

— Cowley Abbott (@cowleyabbott) December 5, 2021

2. What got you involved with the Art Gallery of Hamilton?

We have always been great admirers of the Art Gallery of Hamilton and it is a joy to visit the gallery. From the management to the incredible curatorial department to the extended team, the AGH displays a passionate and energetic devotion to the full history of Canadian art and has a dedication to cultural and social engagement. The fantastic programming and events have drawn us to the gallery regularly over the past several years and we enthusiastically leapt at the opportunity to be a sponsor and collaborate with our friends at the AGH when the opportunity was presented.

3. In December 2021, the AGH hosted Cowley Abbott for Valuation Day. This event allowed patrons the opportunity to bring up works of art for assessment by a Cowley Abbott specialist, what were some of the most intriguing items that you valued at our event?

The opportunity to host a valuation day at the Art Gallery of Hamilton was a wonderful experience, from the beautiful room we were in for the day, to the friendly, helpful staff and the array of fantastic artworks on display throughout the exhibition galleries. We love meeting with clients and hearing the special stories related to their works of art. Valuation days provide our specialists with the unique chance to view a great variety of artworks, from paintings to works on paper to sculptural works by both Canadian and international artists.

It really is the interaction with clients, however, and learning about their connection with their art that makes the day special. From inherited artworks to gems found at consignment shops, Cowley Abbott has been able to foster some favorable consignment opportunities for the future.

✨Our specialists are looking forward to our Valuation Day @at_theagh and discussing art with clients! We are quite booked with only a few time slots remaining!

— Cowley Abbott (@cowleyabbott) December 5, 2021

4. You were a sponsor of the Tom Thomson? The Art of Authentication exhibition exploring the myriad questions related to authenticating works of art. As art auctioneers and appraisers what did the exhibition mean to you and the value of authentication?

This exhibition is incredibly unique, fusing science, art and investigation. As art appraisers, we spend our days assessing and researching artworks, and this exhibition presents many of the tools and hallmarks that we use in our steps towards valuating art for collectors and art lovers alike. We initially assess an artwork based on physical attributes, including factors like medium, size and technique, and then take the artist’s oeuvre, style, the provenance of the artwork, to name a few, into consideration.

Scholarship is ongoing and always expanding in the art world, making our job incredibly interesting! As such, we make sure that we stay up to date with new publications, articles, and exhibitions like Tom Thomson? The Art of Authentication. Contact with academics and scholars is integral, so that we can learn from their research and share our findings. The value of authentication is invaluable, and we enjoyed seeing attributes of what we do as art specialists highlighted in this exhibition.

5. What do you see as the challenges of art authentication?

As touched upon earlier, scholarship is ongoing in the art world. We are lucky to have so many talented art academics and scholars who embark on research and publications about artists. These resources help immensely with our research and we continually stay connected with these academics for their assistance with artworks entrusted to Cowley Abbott for auction.

A key element of both art authentication and art valuation is the provenance of an artwork. When a collector can provide a clear history of the artwork and the steps it took from the artist’s hands to the current owner, we know we have a wonderful and clear story to share. However, if the provenance is unclear or lacking details of the path the artwork took from the artist’s hands to the current owner, we have to do some digging to discover as much information as we can before presenting the work to potential buyers. This often involves delving into an artist’s catalogue raisonné, researching various reference materials, or perhaps seeking out the opinion of a fellow art expert. The hunt for the story behind an artwork is what our specialists truly enjoy.

Cowley Abbott: Bridging the Gap Between Traditional Auction Services and the Online Art Marketplace - Art Gallery of Hamilton (1)

6. We have another Valuation Day coming up this May, what are you looking forward to this time?

We are looking forward to the prospect of connecting with new and old collectors, as well as the occasion to view artworks by either recognized artists or unknown artists. Perhaps we may find artworks for consignment to our various forthcoming auctions, or we may simply provide an idea of the value for someone’s beloved artwork. What we most look forward to, however, is hearing the stories about the artworks we are shown by these art lovers, whether it was a treasure found at a garage sale, a work purchased from a gallery or auction, or if the object was inherited from a family member. These stories inform our understanding of artists and the history of art in general, as well as providing context through thrilling bits of social or cultural history!

7. What sort of items do people bring to Valuation Days that get you excited?

On the rare occasion, someone may bring in a work by an artist that we did not know existed within the artist’s oeuvre, or perhaps was exhibited in a past exhibition or even reproduced in an academic publication. These artworks are exciting to us as appraisers and specialists (art nerds you could say!). If there is the opportunity to potentially consign one of these artworks for an upcoming auction, such as our twice-yearly live auctions of Important Canadian Art, we are thrilled. Being entrusted with an artwork by a collector is taken very seriously by our specialists, respecting the artwork throughout the consignment process, as well as striving to find the work a new home where it will be loved.

Have Your Art Appraised on May 1, 2022!

Cowley Abbott’s Valuation Day event at the Art Gallery of Hamilton will allow patrons the opportunity to bring up to three works of art for an assessment by a Cowley Abbott specialist. During these sessions, Cowley Abbott’s teams will aim to unlock vital information related to the background of an artwork, as well as its potential auction value. Don’t forget to budget time to take in the last day of the AGH Art Sale!

Registration Fee: $10 per work. Maximum 3 works per person.

To register email with “AGH Valuation Day” in the email subject line.

Header image from December 2021 Valuation Day, courtesy of Cowley Abbott.

Liana Shaw is the Coordinator, Marketing at the AGH.

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