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High school bet its future on paintings worth $2.8 million - then learned their real value

School classroom with blackboard

The four works of Asian art were supposed to provide financial relief for the small, music education-focused Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, California.

A generous donor gave the school the Chinese paintings in late 2017 and early 2018, which were valued by two independent appraisers to be worth $2.8 million, the school said. With the largest donation in its 20-year history, no longer would the private academy be forced to adhere to a tight budget - relying on tuition fees and contributions to maintain operations.

The school was so confident in the appraisals, it took out $400,000 in loans against the art, school officials say, helping to pay for a new communications director and full-time admissions director. Their efforts quickly paid dividends: enrollment in the academy, which hosts just 24 students, is expected to nearly double next school year, Janelle Geistlinger, the admissions director, said in an interview Monday.

"What this level of a donation had the ability to do for us was give us this long-term sense of stability," she said. "So that we could really see the next 20 years and imagine growing to a larger campus, ways we could grow our program, just really enabling us to begin to dream and reach for those next steps."

But administrators were hit with devastating news as they explored selling the paintings earlier this year. An auction house in San Francisco specializing in Asian art told them the paintings were duplicates, and thus worth very little - impeding their dreams of expansion, Geistlinger said.

Instead, the school laid off its new communications director and the head of the school, whose responsibilities are now shared among three faculty members, and issued "significant" pay cuts to the majority of its staff.

The school is in "active" discussions with the New York appraisers who provided the false estimates to learn what happened, she said. Because of the mistake, a presumption of financial abundance has shifted to survival mentality as the community rallies to keep their school afloat for the remainder of the year.

"I think it's one of those kinds of things that just knocks the wind out of you," Geistlinger said. "I took a big breath and looked at what has to be done, and we're not going to give up. The work is too important, the boys count us, the outcomes are so meaningful that we're going to do what we have to do."

Geistlinger said the Pacific Boychoir Academy is not naming the donor, who she says acted in good faith. The school is also not naming the original appraisers. She emphasized that the shortfall they're facing affects only this school year.

Next year, with increased enrollment, the school should be able to meet their expenses independently, she added, pointing to the notable results they had by hiring a communications and full-time admissions director. The academy currently houses students in grades 4-8 and enrollment costs about $24,000, Geistlinger said. Students take regular academic classes for half the day and spend the remainder of their time doing music theory.

"There is a bright future right there," Geistlinger said. "We just need to get to next year."

Assessing the true value of art can present challenges for appraisers and authenticators, whose strategies for doing so can range widely. A recent New York Times Magazine story discusses how the value of the works of Rembrandt, for example, can hinge on whether its determined that the painting was created solely by the artist himself, or whether he had assistance from other artists in his studio.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, which first reported this story, Chinese paintings can prevent even more challenges for authentication and appraiser - namely because it's common for artists to pay tribute to masters by replicating their work. J.J. Lally, a New York-based Asian art dealer, told the publication "it is extremely difficult to ascertain with real certainty and consensus the attribution of any Chinese painting."

"It certainly is not the first time there's been dispute over a Chinese painting," Lally told the Chronicle. "Sometimes you ask five experts, you get six opinions."

For the Pacific Boychoir Academy, those expert opinions were ultimately the difference between $2.8 million and next to nothing. The school is now trying to make up that loss through more traditional fundraising efforts, Geistlinger said, and it has raised at least $62,000 in donations. She could not specify if that included the nearly $3,000 contributed to a GoFundMe drive in the school's name by Monday evening. The school's goal sits at $270,000, to pay for operating costs for the rest of the year.

Summer Dittmer, a math teacher who now performs duties as head of school, said one generous donor and lover of the school's music offered to match the fundraising efforts once they reach $100,000. The academy's students have appeared on "America's Got Talent" and received Grammys for their work with the San Francisco Symphony.

"There's a reason we're still here. People value what we do," Geistlinger said. "It's a real validator of how much support exists for this very small school."

Geistlinger added that the school is in the process of receiving three new pieces of art from the same donor, collectively appraised at a value of $500,000.

"We have verbal confirmation of their value from the appraiser," she said, adding that the school won't take the number at face value. The appraisers for the new art are the same as the original appraisers for the old art.

The school will seek a second opinion on the art's worth, she said.

Possibly a third.

This article was written by Michael Brice-Saddler, a reporter for The Washington Post.