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How to Research a Old Painting

Somer Taylor

Old paintings can be found in a myriad of places, from antique store treasures to attics. Some have only sentimental value, while others are worth a great deal of money. Determining the value of an old painting takes time and, sometimes, even determination.

Determining the Provenance of an Old Painting

  1. Find out the origins, or provenance, of the painting. If your work came from an art gallery or antique store, you could ask the gallery curator or store owner to supply that data to you as part of the sale. If the painting is a family heirloom or a gift from a friend, talk to that person about where he obtained the painting. If the information is scant or unknown, then start your investigation by first looking at the signature. Who the artist was may illuminate where it came from. For instance, some artists are associated with certain parts of the country. As an example, Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of flowers and animal bones are associated with the Southwestern United States, where she lived during part of her life.

  2. Determine the type of style used. Like any art form, certain styles were popular at certain times in the history of art. Knowing if your painting is from the Expressionist or Impressionist era will help to determine who may have created it and when. Additionally, seeking out an expert at a local fine art museum or antique store specializing in old paintings may be useful.

  3. Record all the information you learn by printing, legally copying, or writing it legibly and keep it in a safe place. If you have any certified or signed documents from an art dealer or specialist you have contacted, include this as well. All this data will be used to determine the value of the work, as indicated by the Appraisers Association of America. The provenance is important, as value is relative when it comes to art--as mentioned by "Antiques Road Show" appraisers. For instance, a painting of your grandmother's Tabby cat will be of minimal value compared to a picture of one of the Hemingway cats of Key West.

  4. Check databases such as "The Art Loss Register." In the chance that the work of art that you have was stolen from a previous owner, information regarding the provenance and how to return the painting may be found here.

Getting an Appraisal

  1. According to the Appraisers Association of America, you ought to have certain information before seeking a professional. "You should be prepared to discuss the purpose of the appraisal such as: insurance or donation; the nature of the work of art such as: painting on canvas or bronze clock; any information about the artist or maker and the date of the piece; any information about when or where it was purchased and if you are the owner; and where the piece is located and if there is an image available."

  2. Research ways to find an appraiser who specializes in the type of work you possess. Contact the store you purchased the painting from to see if it works with or can recommend an appraiser. Also consult professional organizations such as the American Society of Appraisers, the Appraisal Foundation, The International Society of Appraisers (ISA) and the Appraisers Association of America (AAA). The AAA and ISA can also help you find an appraiser in other parts of the world. This may be helpful if your painting originated outside the United States. Search out sites, such as Art-Collecting.com and AskArt.com, for a list of professional associations and their members.

  3. Ask important questions of your art professional regarding his certifications and art specialty, according to personal property appraiser Linda McAdoo. Some or all of this information may be on the web, especially if you go through a professional association site. Yet for confirmation, you may want to personally inquire about credentials and education. This way, you can get in-depth information about how it may be able to help you.

  4. Inquire, additionally, how much the appraiser charges for her services. Members of the AAA are independent appraisers and charge by the hour. Other appraisers may charge by the hour or project. Since you are going to have only one painting appraised, most likely not too much time will be required for this service.

  5. Make certain you are getting good advice from your appraiser. As mentioned by the Appraisers National Association, "You should never engage an appraiser who charges for services based on the value of items, who is willing to take items in lieu of cash compensation, or who expresses an interest in purchasing items included in the appraisal. These things constitute a clear conflict of interest. The fee for your appraisal should be based on the time involved in the examination, inventory, research and documentation of your property. It may also include compensation for travel time. Extraordinary research, court testimony and the use of outside consultants may result in additional fees." Prepare to spend a good amount of money if what you want appraised will require a good investment of time by the appraiser.

Protecting Your Investment

  1. Get insurance for your piece of art. This can be obtained by adding personal property insurance to your renter's or home owner's policy. You may want to purchase a separate policy if the painting is valued at a high price point. Companies that insure fine art include Axa Art Insurance and Fine Art Insurance.

  2. Make certain that you follow the appraiser's advice related to storage. If your work should be kept away from sunlight and damp air, do so. The Fine Art Insurance website contains general information on how to protect your artwork. If the piece is so valuable that it should be in a museum, consider parting with it. Expensive art can attract thieves; and if museums are not safe from robbers, neither will be your house.

  3. Keep all the items related to the provenance, appraisal and any other documents in a fireproof, locked box or safe. This way, future generations of your family can reap the benefits of your labor by having all-important information in one place.