How much is my old painting worth? How to research, appraise, and sell, antique pictures, oil paintings, and prints
How to find out about your old painting
If you are reading this article, there's a good chance that you may have an old painting at home which is a treasured possession that you've owned for years. Alternatively you might be curious about something you have either inherited, or found in a thrift store, charity shop, car boot sale or junk shop. Maybe you have a work of art lying unwanted in the attic or garage, or stashed behind a wardrobe. Whatever the circumstance, the point is that you need to know more about your old picture or painting.
This article will attempt to give you some practical advice on researching and marketing an old work of art. The vast majority of these paintings, prints and etchings will have a relatively low market value, and may be tricky to sell, but don't give up just yet because there are many lost and forgotten masterpieces out there just waiting to be re-discovered.
Important: Please note that I do not offer a valuation service, and will not respond to emails asking for on-line appraisals.
Is it a watercolour, or is it a print?
Many years ago I bought a picture from a junk sale believing it to be a valuable watercolour. In fact it was only a print, but it was a very good one. To an inexperienced eye, a good quality print is often very difficult to tell from a watercolour, but there are some easy clues.
Important! Do not remove an old picture from it's frame as this can devalue the item
First, gently clean the glass with a soft cloth using a tiny amount of glass cleaner only if necessary. Next use a magnifying glass to look at the picture in greater detail. Brushstrokes are not so obvious on a watercolour as on an oil, but you should still be able to see variation in the surface of the painting. Some areas may be bare of paint altogether, or else be highlighted with a thicker layer of paint known as gouache, or body colour. Some artists also use a technique known as 'scratching out' where the surface of the painting is literally scratched to show the white of the paper. You may be able to identify pencil lines beneath the paint, and the picture may show signs of 'cockling' where the artist has made his paper too wet without preparing it adequately first.
If you are still unsure whether you have a painting or a print, look carefully to see if you can identify small dots on the surface. Printmaking has become increasingly sophisticated with the advance of technology, but early prints can usually be readily identified. If the picture is composed of tiny dots of colour it's extremely unlikely to be a watercolour. Check the signature, too, as a printed signature seldom looks truly authentic.
If your picture has a label on the back giving details of the title and artist, search on these details, and if you have a print of a well-known painting, you should quickly find it on line, and this will confirm that you have a reproduction rather than an original. Labels that give a museum name such as 'Museum of Modern Art, NY' or 'Tate Gallery' or ''Musee du Louvre' are a good indication that your picture is a print, and is likely to be a low value item.
Even if your picture turns out to be a print, don't despair. Try selling it at your local sale room or on e-bay. You never know. someone might just take a shine to it.
My picture is obviously a print, because it has a signature and a number at the bottom
If you have a limited edition print by a well-known artist, it will often (though by no means always) have a greater value than a genuine painting by an unknown artist. Never assume that all prints are worthless, as this is definitely not the case. Some very old prints and etchings are extremely valuable. It very much depends on artist, provenance, condition and rarity.
If you suspect you have such an undiscovered gem you should try to get an expert opinion. The earliest prints were usually either black and white, or sepia in colour, and these can be some of the most valuable. Early prints and etchings are an extremely specialist field, and only an expert can give you the right advice.
The earliest prints were made using a raised surface which could be inked. These typically included wood block prints, which are generally, far cruder and more simplistic than modern lithographic, or photographic prints. Some of the earliest woodcuts are extremely valuable because of their age and rarity. Many of these woodcuts are very, very basic, but often these are far more valuable than complicated lithographs created in more recent times.
Many early Japanese prints were created using the woodcut process, and these are highly collectible, even if the signatures are difficult for Western eyes to understand. Woodcuts were popular throughout East Asia well into the 19th century, and some of the earliest examples, printed on to cloth, are Chinese in origin. Oriental woodcuts were extremely popular during the 19th century, when they were imported into Europe in great numbers. To European eyes at that time they were not just exotic and different, they were something to be admired, and used as a source of inspiration. This can clearly be seen in the work of many of the illustrators and artists working around the end of the 19th century, such as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Vincent Van Gogh, and Aubrey Beardsley, where suddenly, clean, uncluttered images became more important than the fussy, highly-detailed work of earlier European artists.
First of all, is it a genuine painting, or is it a print?
Oniji Otani by Toshusai Sharaku (1794)
Highly collectible, hand-coloured political cartoon, 1806
My picture is a black and white print, but is unsigned. Is it worth anything?
Early prints come in many different guises. If your print is signed, and is by a well-known artist it may well be valuable. Equally, even if it is unsigned, but is of an interesting subject, such as a political cartoon, for example, it may well be of interest to a specialist collector. There are collectors who look out for pictures of all sorts of niche subjects including bridges, golf, horses, local scenes, botanical drawings, football, etc. etc. Because early prints are such a specialist area, you should have them valued or appraised by a professional wherever possible. Sometimes old prints come in very good quality frames, and these can also have a value., so it is always worth having them checked out. The print itself might be worth very little, but a lovely old maple frame, for example, can often fetch enough to make your efforts worthwhile.
An example of an etching by Goya
I think my print is actually an etching, but I'm not sure what an etching is
Etchings are a specialised form of print-making made using a metal plate which is first given an acid resistant coating. An image is then scratched into this coating using needles, before the plate is submerged into an acid bath. The coating resists the acid except where the image has been scored through. The acid is able to eat the metal in the scratched out areas, leaving behind a roughened surface. The plate can then be inked up and pressed onto damp paper, which will draw the ink out of the indentations left by the acid. Etchings have been around since the 16th century, and many famous artists, including Goya and Rembrandt, have experimented with this art form. Because they tend to be produced by the artist himself rather than by an engraver or print studio, etchings are often more highly sought after. Etchings are considered to be works of art in their own right and attract higher prices than prints.
I think it's an oil painting
An oil painting can be created on board, on canvas, on panel, on paper, or even on ivory. Because they tend to be more durable, and less delicate than watercolours, they are not normally behind glass, although there can be exceptions to this.
Just as with any other piece of art that you are contemplating selling, it is very important to retain the original frame, unless specifically advised to do otherwise by an art and antiques professional.
A well executed oil painting will usually have a feeling of depth and often a softness about it that is the result of the paint being built up in layers known as 'glazes'. Modern day print techniques have become so sophisticated that prints on canvas are now available, and many of these prints even mimic brushstrokes. However, a close examination will soon sort the prints from the originals. Oil style prints have a very uniform finish, even the ones with fake brush-strokes. If you are still uncertain, examine the frame and backing for clues. A good quality oil painting will usually have an equally good quality frame. Older frames are often extremely heavy, especially when they are ornately carved, or have gilding over plaster moulding for decoration. Modern, re-production frames are usually lighter in weight and are often put together using modern techniques such as staple guns. When you examine the back of your painting look for clues such as old labels, and auction numbers. Chalked or pencilled numbers on the reverse of a canvas often indicate that the picture has been through one or more auction houses. Labels from framers or galleries are also good clues as to age and provenance.
Monogram of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec
Monogram of T W Wood, zoological illustrator
Now I know it's not a print, how do I know who it's by?
Once you've ascertained that your picture is definitely not a print of a more saleable original, it might pay to do some further research. The most obvious avenue is to start by finding out who the artist is, and whether his paintings are successful in the salerooms of the various auction houses. To do this you need to check the artist's signature, and this is usually (though not always) in either one of the bottom corners.
Many artists use their initials, or even a monogram, in place of a full signature. There are good reference books available showing facsimiles of many thousands of signatures, and you might find one of these at your local library. Once you have an idea who the painter is, you can do further research on-line by searching for sales of the artists work. A short list of artists' monograms is available on-line here, and some artists' signatures may be seen here although these resources pages offer only a very limited number of examples. A good selection of artist's signatures can be found on www.identifyartistsignatures.com. You might also like to examine the signatures listed at www.artistssignatures.com, but you do have to pay to access their full listing.
If you are able to identify the sir-name of the artist, but don't have an initial, try comparing your painting with the work of other artists with the same sir-name by typing in the name and the word 'images' into your search engine. Another fantastic resource is the Public Catalogue Foundation's paintings web-site which has over 2,000 high quality images of paintings in public ownership in the UK. It doesn't matter where you are in the world, there are examples of work from artists from across the globe.
Auction houses and art researchers also use an excellent on-line resource known as The Art Sales Index which lists the hammer prices on paintings sold at most major salerooms. This provide a comprehensive reference source. If you follow the highlighted link, to this web-site you will find a wealth of useful information available free of charge. However, access to the auction price listings has recently been made subject to a fee. If you are researching several items, you may still feel it's worthwhile signing up to this website.
I have written about researching artists in much greater detail in an on-line article entitled 'Who is the artist of this painting' which you might find helpful.
I think it's a pastel, but I'm not sure what a pastel is
A Pastel is a pure powdered pigment mixed with a binding agent, and used in the form of a stick, or a pastel pencil. The pigments used to produce pastels are exactly the same as those used in any coloured art media, from water colours to oil paints, and consequently pastels often produce very intense, vibrant colours.
Pastels have been around since at least the 15th century, and many famous artists have used them to great effect. The French Impressionist artists, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir both produced wonderful examples of this art form.
An artwork made using pastels is called a pastel (or a pastel drawing or pastel painting).
The two most commonly found forms of pastel drawing are made using either soft pastels, which have often have a chalky, dusty appearance, and oil pastels which are shinier, smudgier, and often bolder in colour.
Pastels are generally more delicate than paintings or other forms of drawing, and need to be handled with great care. Soft pastel drawings can shed dust long after they are first produced, and should always be stored upright. A professionally framed pastel will normally have a spacer between it and the mount, to allow for any loose dust to settle out of sight. The spacer will only be very thin, so you might not notice it immediately, but if your pastel drawing does have one, it's a sign that the picture was considered worth giving extra attention.
Pastel drawings by the right artist will often be more highly prized than ordinary drawings, or indeed, watercolours.
I think I've got a valuable painting. Where can I sell it?
The most famous auction houses in the world are probably Sothebys and Christies. You might also have heard of Bonhams, or DuMouchelles, or Susanins, but aside from the big boys of the auction world, there are any number of small, local salerooms who will be happy to dispose of your treasures.
How to sell at auction:
If you have researched your painting, and are satisfied that it is reasonably valuable, then you need to approach an auction house. Search on-line by keying in the name of your city or area, then adding either 'antiques auction' or 'antiques saleroom'. Alternatively use a telephone directory, or Yellow Pages, to locate your nearest sale rooms, or telephone Directory Enquiries. If you live in or near a big city, there's a good chance that you will be spoilt for choice. Ask if the saleroom specializes in paintings. If the answer is no, then you might want to keep trying until you find an auction house with an experienced art expert on board. If you do indeed have a valuable painting on your hands, then a reputable auctioneer will be only too pleased to help you to get the best price for your item. Auctions normally charge a commission fee for their services. This is generally between 10 and 20% of the hammer price, and the more your item sells for, the more commission they will earn.
Selling on e-bay
Paintings do sell on e-bay, but ask yourself this. If you were a collector, would you risk too much of your hard-earned money on a painting you have never seen in the flesh? Unless you are selling a more contemporary painting, or a lower value item, I would personally prefer to try a formal auction house first.
Selling to a dealer
Again, this is a tricky area. Some dealers are both knowledgeable and fair. Some are not. The dealer has a living to earn, overheads to cover, and all stock is an investment in time and money. You can't blame them if they seek to take advantage of an innocent punter. Or can you? Many reputable antique galleries are happy to buy your valuables. You are taking a chance that they are giving you a reasonable sum, and they are taking a chance that they are investing in something that will sell. Clearly you must use your own judgement here. Never be afraid to haggle with a dealer, and you can always take your item to more than one.
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© 2010 Amanda Severn