Sizing Up Works of Art

The love for art history that Nan Chisholm developed at Mills has led her down a fascinating path—including to PBS.

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By Emily Withnall

As an art consultant and appraiser, Nan Chisholm ’73 works like a detective. For Chisholm, the history and context for the paintings she has appraised and sold over the years are what she enjoys learning about the most. Her expertise in 19th- and 20th-century American paintings is undergirded by a deep understanding of the stories we can find in art—and in our everyday lives. Whether it’s tracking down a particular painting for a client, or conducting research to identify a painting’s value, the stories of both the art and the owner become integral to her process. 

Chisholm began her career at Sotheby’s in the mid-1970s soon after graduating from Mills College and ended up there for more than 20 years. She remembers many significant moments from her time at the multinational corporation, such as selling a George Caleb Bingham painting for more than a million dollars. 

“I began my career just at a time when the American paintings market was starting to really establish itself as a major market,” Chisholm says. “I was extremely lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.” 

When the American PBS series Antiques Roadshow started in 1997, she began touring with the production as an American paintings and drawings appraiser, a gig she continues to this day. She says the series only shows the best things that people unearth from their closets—but part of the fun lies in digging through the commonplace objects to find the treasures. 

Understanding which stories are true and which aren’t can take some detective work, too. “People might say, ‘We’ve had this in our family for 200 years,’ but you look at the piece and say, ‘Well, this painting is from the early 20th century,’” Chisholm says. “You have to take what people tell you with a grain of salt because family history can get muddled over the years.” 

A white woman with graying blonde hair and wearing a blue patterned top sits outdoors at a folding table with a  laptop in front of her.
Nan Chisholm at an appraisal table at an Antiques Roadshow event at Filoli in Woodside, California, which will air on May 15. Photo by Katherine Nelson Hall for GBH.

On the flip side, Chisholm says she’s learned a lot from collectors at Sotheby’s and the people who bring art to Antiques Roadshow. The family stories behind the art she appraises are often as rich and interesting as the story of the artist. 

Chisholm continues to tour with Antiques Roadshow and has filmed in locations across the United States. She says the filming days are very long and involve looking through a lot of items. “What you see on TV is the crème de la crème; we get a lot of junk,” Chisholm says. “And I see Rembrandt’s ‘The Man with the Golden Helmet’ almost every place we visit. There are many reproductions.” 

Chisholm majored in art history when she attended Mills. A Kansas City native, she began her college career at Goucher College in Baltimore, but she transferred when she learned that she could study abroad through Mills. Chisholm credits her six months abroad in Italy and her art history courses at Mills for her career path as an art appraiser and dealer. 

“I took a year-long survey course in art history with Alfred Frankenstein that covered American art starting in colonial America. I ended up focusing on American art as a result,” says Chisholm. “He really piqued my interest in studying further, and when I worked at Sotheby’s for many years, for part of that time I worked in the American paintings department.” 

Chisholm started her own company in 2003 in New York City, and she enjoys helping buyers find rare works of art to add to their collections. More recently, Chisholm has returned to Kansas City and has become a regular writer for the arts and culture magazine KC Studio. Over the course of the pandemic, interviewing people about art conservation, community art classes, and local art has helped her become reacquainted with her hometown. 

“It’s meeting people and hearing their stories that I really love,” Chisholm says.