FALLS CITY — A lot of people turn to Randolph Osman to find out just how much the painting in their living room is worth.
Most of the time, said Osman, it’s worth exactly what Aunt Irma paid for it at the flea market. If that.
“It’s just mom-and-pop ‘Antiques Roadshow’ stuff,” he said.
Unless Pierre-Auguste Renoir found time to paint dogs playing poker or Andrew Wyeth suddenly decided black velvet was the only medium for a true portrait of Elvis Presley, Osman isn’t interested.
When he was appraising fine art full time, he charged $125 per hour and refused any jobs that paid less than $500. Now, at 81, the Falls City resident even turns away clients with that kind of money to spend. That said, if a university library finds some doodlings by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino behind the sofa, Osman might just be willing to take a peek.
“I take on an assignment if it’s something I can’t turn down,” Osman said.
He has no problem turning down people who want to know if their statue of Buddha is more valuable now that it has a clock in its belly.
In fact, he said, he rather wonders why they care.
If the Buddha clock is valuable to its owner, then it’s valuable. If it falls off the shelf and gets broken (heaven forfid), it doesn’t matter if it can be replaced with a trip to the nearest dollar store. However, if Buddha clocks suddenly become trendy to the point where every hipster wants one ... ka ching!
Replacement cost is not always the same as market value, Osman said.
“They’re pretty much a different animals,” he said. “They can be similar or they can be very, very different.”
As an appraiser, Osman scoured auction results to find out what people were willing to pay for similar artworks.
“Everything is worth what the market says it’s worth,” Osman said. “You break that down into pieces, and you analyze those pieces. The skill really is in knowing what marketplace to find the comparable works that have been sold in the past. All that is reflected in auction because that’s where all those sellers come.”
People generally don’t need a professional appraiser at $125 per hour to price their personal treasures, he said. If someone has a baseball signed by Pete Rose, she or he can go on eBay and find other baseballs Rose signed available for $50.
A ball signed by Joe DiMaggio? That might go for more like $1,000.
Just beware of cruise ships bearing gifts, Osman advised. Artists like Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol all cranked out prints of their work and signed them with reckless abandon to be sold off on cruise ships. Osman has seen a lot of them from people who think they may have found a way to pay for their retirement.
Not likley, Osman said. The autographs of famous people , particularly when they’re passed out like Halloween candy, don’t automatically increase an item’s value. Again, he added, it all depends on scarcity and demand. Yet there is nothing wrong with cherishing art (or baseballs) for their own sake, he said.
All caveats aside, people sometimes take Osman by surprise.
He remembers being approached by a woman in the Willamette Valley to appraise a painting by a South American artist.
“Her father had been an attorney in Latin America and took the painting as payment from an artist for whom he provided legal services,” he said.
The painting eventually sold for $350,000.
Another time, the owner of a house-cleaning business asked him to appraise a large painting of a horse and rider. The client found the painting leaning against a Dumpster.
“It turned out to be by a famous artist of Western scenes, and I was able to broker it for sale at an auction in Santa Fe for $125,000,” Osman said. “All of us got paid, and everybody was happy.
Sometimes, Osman said, the surprises work in reverse. In 1993, he thought he might be looking at an original Raphael worth $6 million.
“The expert I brought in concluded the painting was indeed an original High Renaissance Italian painting closely associated with the studio of Raphael, but not conclusively by the master himself,” he said. “Rather, it was most likely a studio piece worked on by many assistants and masterminded by a follower of Raphael.”
Because of its ambiguous provenance, many restorations and poor condition, it sold for $15,000.
Osman’s interest in art started when he was a batman.
He didn’t strike terror in the hearts of evil-doers as a caped crusader. He was the other kind of “batman,” the British term for driver He was an English major at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, when one of his professors (an expert in Medieval art) needed helping getting around.
“It worked out, and that was a pivotal part of how I became very interested in Medieval art,” Osman said. “My art interest started in the 12th century, not the 20th.”
Few people expect to find an appraiser of fine art living in Falls City. Even Osman found it a bit odd when he moved to town in 1969.
Osman was teaching art history at Portland State University and was interested in fly fishing on the north fork of the Siletz River. Friends told him the best way to get there was through Falls City.
“It got to be a habit, and it was so beautiful, that I kept going,” he said.
The 30-year-old art professor saw an abandoned house available with three-quarters of an acre of land selling for $1,200.
“I knew I wouldn’t live there, but I needed a place to hang my hat,” he said.
After working to restore the house, Osman left in 1973 to become the curator of education at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in California. After three years of curating exhibitions, writing grants, researching collections and running a small museum art school, he returned.
He stayed and pursued his own work in porcelain while he learned to design and tie flies and build rods while he fished for steelhead on the Siletz.
Osman left Falls City again in 1979 to direct the W.B. Gray Art Gallery at Eastern Carolina University’s School of Art. He returned in 1985 but took jobs in Alaska and Pennsylvania before settling in the community permanently in 1992 and working as an independent appraiser.
He eventually served on the city council and was the director of the local arts commission. He also oversaw the restoration of the 1892 United Methodist Church on Main Street. Professionally, however, Osman admitted he felt a little out of place in Falls City. He kept a post office box in Portland for the sake of appearances.
“People who knew anything were going to say anyone from Falls City was a bimbo,” he said. “In Portland, they thought it was Silver Creek Falls, and I didn’t tell them it wasn’t. However, with the Internet, I got clients from all over the world, and no one even heard of Falls City.”
No offense, said Osman, but Falls City was nothing to brag about 50 years ago.
“It was really a burned-out druggie, ex-logging town in the ‘60s,” he said.
Things have changed. In the last couple of decades, said Osman, the town has drawn more diverse and educated residents. Amenities like the Black Rock Mountain Bike Area attract people from other communities. New businesses have brought in new perspectives.
In the process, Osman’s appraisal of his community has improved. It is a rare work of art whose value has increased considerably since 1969, he said. It's like going from black velvet to rococo.
“Things kind of turned over,” said Osman. “It became a much more defensible place.”