Selling Art: How to Identify the Artist, Age, and Value of Artwork
So you have this old picture, and you're not sure who it's by. The right name could make all the difference at auction, but just how do you find out who painted your item—and were they famous?
If you are reading this article, you may have recently acquired a picture that you want to know more about, or you might have suddenly become curious about a painting that you, or your family, have owned for some time. Whatever the reason, you are now looking for information, and a quick guide to how to find it. With this in mind, I have set out a sequence of steps that you need to take to identify your artist, and to help you understand a little more about your picture. It may well be that you fail to find a definite answer, but don't be discouraged. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there are many uniquely wonderful works of art that are created by amateur artists whose names will never feature in an auction catalogue or a museum inventory. If you love your picture, then it's likely that others will too, and a beautiful item will nearly always find a buyer, even if it isn't by a famous artist.
Questions to Ask Before Selling Your Art at Auction
- Is my picture an original, or is it a print?
- My painting has initials for a signature, but how do I find out who the artist is?
- My artwork has an artist signature, but how do I know if the artist's work is valuable?
- My picture has a signature, but could it be a forgery?
Is My Picture an Original, or Is It a Print?
There are probably millions of prints and reproductions of paintings in circulation today, and some of these prints are so good that it is very difficult to identify the copy from an original.
Ways to tell if your painting is an original or a print:
Examine the surface of your picture: One easy clue is to examine the surface of your picture through a magnifying glass or jeweler's loupe. If the surface is comprised of thousands of tiny, uniform dots, then it is definitely a print.
Labels: The back of your picture might also provide information. Words such as "reproduction," "edition," or the name of a museum, such as "The Museum of Modern Art, New York," or "Musee d'Orsay, Paris" are all definite hints that your item is one of many copies.
Search Engines: If you have an actual title and an artist written on the label you can also try typing the details into a search engine to see if an image of your picture comes up.
Prints From a Famous Original Painting
Prints from a famous original are unlikely to have a big label price tag. In fact, unless the frame is exceptionally good, most mass-produced reproductions tend to have a relatively low resale value.
Collectible Modern Prints
Some modern prints have become collectible in recent times, and this is usually the result of clever marketing, or very limited edition print runs. A good example of modern prints having clever marketing is the American Hargrove prints, which have a certain folksy charm, and often re-sell for quite surprising amounts considering the quantities that have been produced. A quick search on eBay will give you some idea.
Signed Limited Edition Prints
Signed limited edition prints, where the picture is of high-quality and has been hand-signed by the artist, will often be priced high at auction. A good example of such an artist is the wildlife artist, David Shepherd. You will know if your print is a limited edition because it will be numbered, probably on the front, next to the hand-written signature. It might say 36/100, for example, and this means that it is the 36th print out of an edition of 100. If only 100 prints from an original exist, then it makes sense that these will have a higher value than prints that exist in their thousands!
My Painting Has Initials for a Signature, but How Do I Find Out Who the Artist Is?
Lots of artists, including some really famous ones, sign their paintings with their initials. Sometimes these are stylized into a monogram, but usually, it is just letters and dots. This isn't too big a problem if you have a fabulous work of art done in an instantly recognizable style, but the vast majority of paintings are not so easy to identify. So where to start? This is where some real detective work comes in.
How to find the value of your painting using initials and labels:
Track the picture back: First of all, you can attempt to track the picture back. If it is a family heirloom you will have some clues as to its origins. When was it bought? Who bought it, and where did it come from? Next, look for clues in the actual painting. What is the subject matter? If it is a landscape, can you identify the scene? If it is a portrait, can you identify the sitter? Are there any gallery labels, or framer's labels on the reverse? Are there numbers written anywhere on the frame?
Gallery labels and framer's labels: If you see a gallery label or a framer's label, then you immediately have a potential source of information. If the gallery or framer is still in business, contact them, and ask if they can identify the artist. If you have numbers chalked on the frame, it is likely that the picture has been through auction at some point, and if there is an auction house mark or label on the frame, you have another place to check. Auction marks are generally a very good indication that the picture has some value.
Look at a dictionary of artists signatures and monograms: Of course, this won't be a problem if your artist has unusual initials such as Z.Z., but you're probably not going to be that lucky! If you have several paintings to research, or if you often have old paintings through your hands, you might consider actually buying a reference book for yourself, as they are frequently more helpful than the online versions currently available. There are a number of these published, and sometimes local libraries carry a copy in their reference section. However, if you prefer to research using your computer, online resources are available.
My Artwork Has an Artist Signature, but How Do I Know If the Artist's Work is Valuable?
A clear signature is extremely helpful when it comes to picture research. If your artist is fairly well known you may be able to find him or her simply by keying the name into your search engine followed by the word 'painting'. This will be very straightforward if you are lucky enough to own a Renoir, a Remington or a Rembrandt, however, there are lots of lesser-known artists who have their own pages in Wikipedia, or even have their own websites.
If this simple approach draws a blank, then consider using online artist listings. These will not give you vast amounts of information, but if your artist appears on these lists you can be sure that their work has either been sold at auction, or is part of a gallery, or dealer's inventory. The websites I've listed all have access to prices achieved at auction, and that is exactly what you need to know in order to get a rough valuation of your painting. Unfortunately, most of these websites charge you for the information. It's up to you to decide whether you want to pay for a 24-hour membership, or whether you want to investigate the no-charge websites first.
My Picture Has a Signature, but Could It Be a Forgery?
There are many, many high-quality art forgeries in circulation, as well as innumerable copies of famous works. The difference between a copy and a forgery is that the copy is not pretending to be the real deal. A forgery only becomes a forgery when there is an attempt to deceive. There are many good copies around that do not have the finish and presentation of the original artworks, nor, most importantly, are they signed as though they were by the original artist. Often a copyist will sign with his or her own name. Some copyists make a living out of unashamedly reproducing great works of art on a commission basis.
Things to remember when trying to decide if your picture is a forgery:
- Age: Many forgeries can be hundreds of years old. Yes, folks, forgery is not a new idea!
- Provenance: Potential buyers will require some kind of provenance. Its ownership can be traced back. Lesser valued items, however, are more likely to be taken at face value.
- Brush strokes and colour: Look at the quality of the brush strokes, and the colour of the paint. Does it appear to be far more recent than the artist's dates would indicate? If the artist is supposed to have died more than 50 years ago, it is unlikely that the painting will smell of fresh oil paint, and be completely free of damage or any kind of discolouration.
Forgeries can be very hard to spot, and it takes an expert on a given artist to give a definitive answer. If you do have a painting that you believe to be a very high-value item, it is worth having it authenticated. Ideally, this can be done before you enter the painting for auction, but high-end auctioneers have a lot of contacts, and may well be able to steer you in the right direction.
How Do I Sell My Art?
The vast majority of paintings have relatively low resale values. Many are by amateur artists whose output has been so low that no one has paid attention to them. These artists might be fantastically skilled and turn out paintings of exceptional quality, but there will always be a ceiling on their value, which is a great pity. Other pictures, however, might be relatively unattractive, yet they will attract buyers just because they were painted by a "listed" artist. Whenever you are buying art, choose work that you love, and can easily live with. Some art is regarded as an investment but, personally, I'd just as soon enjoy what's hanging on my walls!
Here are a few ways to sell your painting:
- Auction House: This is an ideal way to market an old painting or a painting by a well-known artist. Search the internet for antiques and collectibles auction houses in your area, then contact them to find out whether they specialise in art. Most auction houses will give you a rough estimate of what the item is likely to sell for. Good auctioneers will also ensure that you achieve the best price by advertising on the internet and in the trade press. They will also advise their contacts of what you have to offer. The commission fee is likely to be between 10% and 20% of the sale price. There may be a fee for unsold items.
- Selling to a dealer or a gallery: The advantage of selling in this way is that the transaction is completed swiftly. You can haggle to try to achieve the best price, and nobody will force you to sell if you aren't happy with the price offered. Always remember that the dealer or gallery has a profit to make, so they will never give you top dollar for your item.
- Ebay or Amazon Marketplace: This is not necessarily the best route to take, as you will have to build in reasonable shipping costs. Paintings that are behind glass tend to be heavy, and are not easy to transport. However, there is always the option for the buyer to collect the piece.
- Yard Sale, Garage sale, Boot Sale: These are all excellent ways to sell unwanted items. If you have thoroughly researched your picture, and have decided to sell at any price, then this is as good a route as any.
Some Extra Advice
There are quite a number of contemporary (modern day) artists who are either only recently deceased or who have achieved every artist's dream of becoming successful in their own lifetime. The internet has had a great part to play in this, as it has never been so easy to get your work "out there" as it is today. Some of our great contemporary artists have come from nowhere to be highly collectible in just a few short years.
If you are lucky enough to have a work by one of these up and coming artists, you can easily research their recent auction prices online. Living artists will sometimes buy back earlier work, and it can often be worth approaching the artist, or his or her designated art dealer, before placing a picture up for auction. It's also a good idea to visit the artist's website to make certain that the work is an original. More auction websites are listed in the "resources" section at the bottom of this article.
This article has been written in good faith, but it does not constitute a valuation or appraisal. I do not offer an appraisal or valuation service, but I do hope that the information given here will assist you in discovering more about your art.
Resources: A List of Useful Websites
The following websites feature (free) lists of known artists. If your artist appears on these lists, it is likely that their work is sellable. Most of these sites offer detailed information such as auction results, image gallery, and artist biographies, but many require payment to fully access the information you need.
This site gives you limited (free) access to signatures and monograms, but it is also possible to buy time on the site for more in-depth research.
This site has a similar online facility, and again you must pay to use it.
This site has a very limited collection of artists' signatures available to view at no cost whatsoever.
This site has high-quality images and good information about thousands of items.
Both sites allow you to access an amazing amount of information for free once you have signed up.
Public Catalogue Foundation's Paintings
This site has high-quality images and good information about over 2,000 paintings in public ownership in the UK. The artists represented are from across the globe, so don't be put off by the fact that it is a UK based site. If you have a painting and suspect that you know the artist, you can quickly compare your style of painting with those on this website.
This site is really useful if you are looking at comparing your artwork to similar ones that have recently passed through the major auction houses. It isn't anywhere near as comprehensive as some of the sites listed below, but it provides a lot of useful information at zero cost and is worth checking out first.
This excellent site has a comprehensive list of artists, together with (free) access to a limited selection of images, a discussion board, and artist's biographies where available. I've found this site to be very helpful for searching out details of by-gone artists, but not always so helpful with contemporary, living artists. The site has a useful 24hour membership option to enable access to a full range of reduced rate.
Another very helpful site with a good, long list of artists (free) together with images (free) and, a limited amount of price information on the longer listings. The free image gallery is very helpful if you are not certain that you've found the right artist, and want to compare the style of painting. Subscriptions for a full range of services can be purchased for 24 hours, monthly, or annually.
This site claims to have over 500,000 artists listed on its database, and it has access to over 2 million auction records. It is not, however, so user-friendly as the two sites listed above, but I have found it more useful for researching British and European artists. The site gives free access to its artist listings and this includes a limited image gallery and biographical detail where available. Subscription rates are quite high on this site, but it does include information about other antiques and collectibles sold at auction.
This site offers a range of very useful services for free, but you do have to register as a member. The downside is that it is not very user-friendly, and finding information can be quite fiddly. It is worth persevering, however, especially if you prefer not to pay out for easier to use sites such as AskArt and Arcadja.
This site has auction records dating back to 1922! It accesses 350 auction houses worldwide and has over 4.2 million records online. It is very user-friendly, and I recommend this site as a great place to research past auction prices, and for comparing your painting to others by the same artist. There is, however, quite a high premium for using the service.
This site bills itself as a 'World leader in art market information'. It seems to have the usual range of information on offer, but the list of artists appears to be more comprehensive. The big plus on this site is that it has a collection of artist's signatures, monograms and symbols. The downside is that it offers hardly any of its services for free, and it's 24-hour trial price is on the high side compared to every other site I've listed here.