Scenario: Someone comes to the gallery with a work of art.
THEM: “Hi, I found this in a yard sale/store/my attic, and I want to know if it’s worth anything. Is it real?”
YOU: “I can’t provide an appraisal, but I might be able to help you find out more about it.”
RULE NUMBER ONE: It is illegal for the library to provide appraisals. We are an institution that accepts donated art, and the IRS forbids us to provide a monetary estimate on works of art.
- Providing appraisals is also against library policy.
- We CAN help people find the info they need to determine whether or not they want to pursue an appraisal.
RULE NUMBER TWO: None of us, including gallery team members, are qualified to “authenticate” works of art. To authenticate a work of art is to say, “Yes, this work was made by that artist, and it’s not a forgery.” You need a qualified appraiser for that, and even they are often unwilling to rule out the possibility of a forgery. Forgers are tricky and anything that is collected is probably also forged by someone.
- We CAN help people try to identify styles, see what the artists’ signatures look like, and determine whether the work of art is a reproduction. We CAN refer them to our appraiser’s list.
- We CAN’T recommend specific appraisers; that is also against IRS rules.
- Take the work into better light, like the gallery workroom.
- Get a loupe. It is a little magnifier. They are kept under the phone at the gallery desk or in the gallery workroom.
- Put the loupe GENTLY on top of the work of art. Don’t drag it across the surface. The clear plastic sides let light into the area under the magnifier. Find an area where there is color, and see if there are little dots that look like this:
These dots are made in mechanical reproductions. If you see these, the person likely has a printed reproduction. Let them look through the loupe, too.
Also, look for printed names, titles, the © symbol, the Printing House names. Often at the very bottom of a print.
YOU: “It appears to be a reproduction rather than an original work of art.”
Of course, what they were hoping for is that you would say, “Why, that’s an incredibly rare and valuable collector’s item worth x amount of dollars, and you can retire in luxury!” But we can’t do that.
What if it’s signed by the artist?
An original work of art will sometimes be signed by the artist. Or not. Or signed, but illegibly. Look for names, dates, titles, and fractions.
Search the title, search the artist’s name, and you can try a “reverse image search”. Try variations on the spelling, too.
If you DO see a signature:
The Sabatini Gallery’s database has info on many of the artists in our collection. Much of the work we see come in is by local artists. Search for the artist’s name in the search box, or look up the artist under the “artists” tab. You may find a bio, and that will satisfy many customers. Some local artists have the professional reputations that their work is collected and valuable. These people will probably be found in an online search. If the artist doesn’t have a web presence, you can send the customer up to the Topeka Room to see if there is a bio file on the artist in the Vertical Files. Sometimes, there is. In all likelihood if there is no web presence for the artist, there may be little value. The art may have been made by a student, a hobbyist, or someone who just doesn’t sell a lot of art.
What if you DON’T see a signature?
Then it’s anybody’s guess who did the painting. Paintings without the artists’ names CAN be valuable, but don’t TEND to be. Unless the artist’s style is REALLY recognizable, and REALLY well known, even most appraisers won’t want to make an attribution of a certain artist based only on the style. As above, anything that can be collected has probably been forged by someone. Big museums have been burned by art that was misattributed to famous artists.
The “signed and limited edition.”
“Signed and limited editions” can be original works of art. Or, they can be mechanical reproductions that are “approved” by the artists. You may see a pencil signature in addition to a signature that is printed in the image. The artist signed the original, and that shows reproduction shows it, too. Then they signed the reproduction.
A “Limited Edition” may have a fraction written, usually at the bottom, like 1/500. This means that 500 prints were made, and this is the first one made. Artists are on their honor to limit the number of prints made to the number in their edition. Some “extend” an edition, by printing more than the original number and counting “501/1000.”
Some of these are collected by the artists’ fans. Some come with “certificates of authenticity.” These are not guarantees of monetary value. Some artists will have galleries that handle their work, and the galleries can provide current pricing. Or, eBay listings and current auctions are something that they can find. Sometimes there will be collectors’ books in the Collectibles Neighborhood.
What if you don’t see the dots?
If you don’t see the dots, the customer may have an original work of art. Now, you get to use your detective skills. Is it a real painting? What kind of paint? Is it a real print? What kind of print? We rarely see sculptures come in for research, so let me concentrate on paintings and prints.
Sometimes, they will have a real hand-pulled print. Here is a magnified view of an engraving:
These lines were made on a metal plate, which held ink. The plate and paper were run through a printing press, transferring the ink to the paper. You do see irregular areas, but not a regular dot pattern. This is encouraging. Sometimes, the inks can be in color, or the lines can be a little fuzzier. Want lots of detail?
Here is a good website about printmaking techniques: https://www.paceprints.com/techniques
It has examples and descriptions of the techniques, plus some images made with those techniques. Some printmaking techniques are fuzzier than this, some look almost like watercolors.
VERY GENTLY put the loupe on the canvas or paper. Paintings can scratch easily. When you invite the person to look through the loupe, tell them not to drag the loupe across the surface. If you want to move the loupe, lift it off the canvas and place it in another area GENTLY.
A real painting: Under the loupe, you’ll see brushstrokes that match individual colors. Watch for this.
A “brushed” reproduction: Some printers of reproductions take a clear gel and make brush marks over the surface of the reproduction to make it look like a real painting. Those look like this. See how the brush marks go over areas like the branches and mountains?
In a real painting, the brushstrokes will follow the lines of the color changes.
The surface: is the painting on stretched canvas? Canvas board? Wood? Paper? Sometimes this can help identify what kind of painting it is. For example, oil paint is not usually used on paper because the oil eats through the paper.
A watercolor: Here is a closeup of a watercolor, on paper:
You don’t see the dots. You do see areas where the paint has been absorbed by the paper fibers. From here: search for info on the artist.
You’ve determined that what you have is probably an original work of art. NOW, you get to try to find info about the artist. Many artists sign their works in one of the bottom corners. Some even sign legibly, which is a bonus.
What if it’s in poor condition?
What does “condition” look like? Tears, stains, bends, bleached areas, etc. all detract from the value of an artwork. Water damage and molds are the worst. Only the biggest of big name artists’ works will retain value if the piece is damaged.
IF YOU START FINDING PROMISING INFO: Refer them to an appraiser.
Appraisers charge by the hour to research a work of art. Most start around $300 and some go as high as $800 or more to appraise one work of art. It depends on how long it takes them to find the info to give you a good estimate of what an item is worth. They may spend days in libraries, looking through auction records, and searching for info on the artist and the market for that artist’s work. The customers won’t want to pay someone $300 to find out their art is worth less than the price of a good meal. The more information the customer can gather, the less work the appraiser will have to do.
The gallery team updates an appraiser’s list as they get info about who is working in the area. The most current version can be found here. We also try to have printed copies in the Gallery.
A good appraiser will answer the question: “Is this worth appraising?”
A good appraiser will ask “Why do you want this appraised?” Is it because:
- You want to insure it
- You want to sell it
- You want to give it to a museum and need the tax documentation
They write the appraisal in different ways for each of these reasons, because the insurance company, buyer, and IRS all want different info.
By the way: If someone offers to give something to the library…
…refer them to the gallery team. They have a review process for accepting art. DON’T accept it. The gallery team will contact them. DO NOT let them leave an item in the gallery or library.
Thank you to Sherry Best, Collection Curator, for putting together this informative Information Superstars post!