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Understanding Art's Value

14 Mar 2022
From growing up in a gallery to taking NZ art to Abu Dhabi, Charles Tongue's background has him well placed to make some crucial calls on how our art is sold.

For Charles Tongue, a career in fine art was probably inevitable. 


Recently appointed as the new Valuations Specialist for Webb’s Auctions,  Tongue’s career effectively began when his mother Joy Tongue was running her fine art gallery, the Studio of Contemporary Art (SOCA), in Newmarket. 


“I used to install paintings on the way home after school,” says Tongue, “Over time, I became more and more involved in the art world.”  


International experience


Majoring in Art Theory at Canterbury University’s School of Fine Arts, Tongue worked for a time for prominent Wellington auctioneer Dunbar Sloane.

Then followed several years working in and managing commercial galleries, including SOCA. When the global financial crisis hit in 2008, he and his wife Ana Ivanovic-Tongue went to the Salwa Zeidan Gallery, Abu Dhabi. 

“We predicted stagnation in the local art market with potential to stretch for several years. We decided to treat that as an opportunity to find a challenge overseas.” 


There, they installed the country’s first public art, which he says was “complicated” in a place where art had to be non-representative in accordance with Islamic norms. 


“Konstantin Dimopoulos, Virginia King and Gregor Kregar were the three artists from New Zealand that we managed to include,” he remarks

For the past eight years, Tongue has worked with Auckland-based Vernon Systems, who he calls “one of the unsung heroes of the New Zealand art world.” 


The company’s flagship product is the Vernon CMS (Collection Management System), a database system for museums and collections which dominates the Australasian market and is in use “pretty much anywhere they speak English.”


He adds, “It is quietly one of our biggest art exporters.”

Webb's newly-appointed Valuation Specialist, Charles Tongue, with his wife, Ana Ivanovic-Tongue, and their boys Louis, 12, and Oliver, 5. Photo: Supplied.


The new gig


Tongue has moved to Webb’s at a time of exciting growth for the company, with new staff being taken on and the official opening of new Wellington premises due this month. Webb’s is also actively looking for space in Christchurch.


“Here in Auckland, I'm just watching them paint the outside of the building next door, which we’ve just taken over. We are expanding at quite a rate,” he says.


A position that was listed on The Big Idea’s job section, his remit as Valuation Specialist is to provide market appraisals and valuations for insurance, estate division and market price. He explains that valuation research often includes a good deal of detective work, with a lot of crossover between his fine art and museum experience. 


Gordon Walters Untitled (1976), gouache on paper. Photo: Supplied.



“I've always been a huge fan of provenance and the recording of provenance,” he says. “I have to, with very little information, find out to a provable extent what an artwork is and where it's from, and then give it a current market value.” 


The resources applied to this task include auction records, exhibition archives, and books. In some instances, artists of particular note will have a catalogue raisonné, which records all of an artist’s known works over a lifetime.


New work requires a different approach – a comparison against other works by the artist. 


“If an artist does not have an established secondary market, then I'll be looking at current prices and progression of prices over time. That's when I will reach out to the galleries themselves. 


“There's only so many spots in commercial galleries within New Zealand and they are hard fought for. No gallery is going to take on an artist if they don’t believe in them.” 


He believes New Zealand enjoys “wonderful creativity.” 


Tongue continues, “we have more galleries per capita than almost anywhere in the world and we have huge quality of work. But we are very separate from the outside world, which means that artworks are much more attainable for the average person.”


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