How Much Is My Old Painting Worth? Research, Appraise, and Sell
How to Find Out About Your Old Painting
If you are reading this article, there's a good chance that you may have a treasured old painting at home you've owned for years. Alternatively, you might be curious about something you have 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 offers some practical advice on researching and marketing an old work of art. The vast majority of old paintings, prints, and etchings have a relatively low market value and may be tricky to sell, but don't give up just yet—there are many lost and forgotten masterpieces out there just waiting to be re-discovered.
Please note: I do not offer a valuation service and will not respond to emails asking for on-line appraisals.
Do not remove an old picture from its frame, as this can devalue the item.
How to Research and Appraise Antique Art
- First, make sure it an original rather than a copy or a print. Examine the piece with a magnifying glass to determine whether it was painted or printed.
- If it is a print, it may still be worth something. Certain limited edition prints are worth more than normal prints.
- Do not remove the frame from an old piece of art. This can devalue or damage the work. Plus, the frame itself could be valuable.
- To identify the artist, look for a signature, initials, or monogram. There are a number of online resources with artist signatures for comparison.
- Use an online image search to check whether your painting is a copy.
- Once you have identified your artist, check his or her other works online to see what they sell for.
- If your painting is valuable, approach a local auction house. Look for one that specialises in works of art for the best advice.
How to Identify an Original Watercolour Versus 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 painting, but there are some easy clues.
- Gently clean the glass with a soft cloth, using a tiny amount of glass cleaner only if necessary.
- 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. Printed signatures seldom looks truly authentic.
- If your picture has a label on the back giving details of the title and artist, do a search on these details. If you have a print of a well-known painting, you should quickly find it online 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, 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.
How Can I Tell if My Picture Is a Genuine Oil Painting?
- An oil painting can be created on board, canvas, panel, paper, or even 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.
- 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 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, reproduction 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. If it was worth selling through auction previously, then there is a good chance it will be again.Labels from framers or galleries are also good clues as to age and provenance. If you find such a label, check on-line to see if the framer or gallery still exists. They may be able to help you learn more about your artwork.
- There are a huge volume of oil paintings in circulation that have been painted in 'factories' often based in China. You can learn more about these by searching on-line. Sometimes they mimic the style of established artists, but are either unsigned, or signed with a Western sounding name. They are often extremely well painted, and are attractive paintings in their own right. They are not, however, high value items.
How Can I Appraise or Value a Print?
- 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. Limited edition prints will normally have the artist's signature accompanied by a number which indicates the position of the picture in the print run, and the total number of prints produced. 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 specialised 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 cloth, are Chinese in origin. Oriental woodcuts were extremely popular during the 19th century, when they were imported into Europe in great numbers. At that time, to European eyes, they were not just exotic and different, they were something to be admired and were 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 clean, uncluttered images became more important than the fussy, highly-detailed work of earlier European artists.
- Even if your picture turns out to be an inexpensive print, don't despair. Try selling it at your local sale room or on eBay. You never know. Someone might just take a shine to it.
How Much Is My Unsigned Black and White Print Worth?
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, 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. Because early prints are such a specialist area, you should have them valued or appraised by a professional whenever possible.
Could the Frame Be Valuable?
Sometimes old prints come in very good quality frames, and these can also have a value. 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.
What Is an Etching and Are They Valuable?
Etching is a specialised form of print-making. A metal plate is first given an acid-resistant coating. An image is then scratched into this coating using needles and 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.
Just as with any other piece of art that you may try to sell, it is very important to retain the original frame unless specifically advised to do otherwise
How to Appraise a Painting and Identify the Artist
- Once you've ascertained that your picture is definitely not a print of a more salable 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 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 online, and some artists' signatures may be seen online as well, although these pages offer only a very limited number of examples. This site offers a good selection of artist's signatures. You might also like to browse the signatures on this site, but you do have to pay to access their full listings.
- If you are able to identify the surname of the artist but don't have a first initial, try comparing your painting with the work of other artists with the same surname by entering the name and the word "images" into your search engine.
- The Public Catalogue Foundation's paintings website is a fantastic resource, with over 2,000 high-quality images of paintings in public ownership in the UK. It doesn't matter where you are in the world as there are examples of work from artists across the globe.
- Auction houses and art researchers also use an excellent online resource known as The Art Sales Index, which lists the hammer prices (before tax) on paintings sold at most major salerooms. This provides a comprehensive reference source. This site offers 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. A great alternative is to use the Mearto website where hammer prices are given for free, and owners of high-quality paintings are offered free advice.
What Is a Pastel and Can They Be Valuable?
Pastel is a pure powdered pigment mixed with a binding agent. It is 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 watercolours 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 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.
Where Can I Sell My Antique Painting?
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 these 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 online for "antiques auction" or "antiques salesroom" in your city or area. Alternatively, use a telephone directory or Yellow Pages to locate your nearest sale rooms. If you live in or near a big city, there's a good chance that you will be spoilt for choices.
- 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 eBay
Paintings do sell on eBay, 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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Questions & Answers
I have an old painting titled "Pinkie" I'm trying to find info on. Can you help?
"Pinkie" is the popular title of a portrait painted in 1794 by Thomas Lawrence. It is currently in possession of the Huntington Library at San Marino, California. The portrait is actually of Sarah Barrett Moulton. I suspect you have either a print or a hand-painted copy of this painting. "Pinkie" has been reproduced many, many times and prints are relatively low-value items. A good quality hand-painted copy in an attractive, good quality frame might sell for a reasonable sum, but it would only be worth a tiny fraction of the value of the original.
I have a F. Buck Frasier Painting. It has been in the family for many years. I tried researching him but can't find anything about this painter. Who is F. Buck Fraiser and is this painting worth anything?
I have a painting by an artist called Siegel. It has the number F178 on the back. Can you help with any info on this painting?
If you search the free auction results listing on findartinfo.com, you will see that there are many artists with the name Siegel. It is impossible to guess which of these artists might have painted your picture, so I'm afraid I am unable to help. The number on the reverse might be a print number if it is a reproduction, or it could just as easily be an inventory number or an auction number.
I have a Monet original on board called 'Puppy Love'. Is this very valuable?
I suspect that your item is either not by the famous French Impressionist artist, Claude Monet, or else is a copy or a print of a Monet picture which has been given the name 'Puppy Love'. Without seeing it in person it is impossible to say with any certainty. Claude Monet was French, and would have given his paintings French names. An English name such as 'Puppy Love' would be a translation, or perhaps a name made-up to describe the picture. No doubt there are numerous other, not so famous, artists with the name 'Monet'.
It might be worth you signing up to the liveauctioneers.com website (this is free) and looking at their price results page. This would help you see the kind of prices achieved for artwork signed with the name 'Monet'.
I have a genuine oil painting of 'L’Orage/ The Storm' which has been copied from the original by William Adolph Bouguereau. Mine has been signed JONAS and one of the women has only four toes. Would this be valuable or interesting to anybody?
William Bouguereau was an incredibly talented artist who produced highly detailed, sensitive works of art. There have been numerous copies of his paintings made, and some of the better quality ones sell for reasonably large sums of money. If you sign up to the liveauctioneers.com website (there is no fee involved) you can access the auction pice results pages. There are listings for over 600 of Bouguereau's original works together with copies and reproductions of his paintings. Try comparing your item with the images of those listed to get a feel for the likely value.
© 2010 Amanda Severn