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How to Tell If an Old Painting Is Worth Anything

Errin Reaume

Beautiful and timeless works of art, paintings also often make good investments. You may inherit or purchase an old painting for a thrift store or garage sale and wish to determine its value.

Rare paintings can be sold at auction for substantial sums.

One woman in California sold her grandmother's old Italian painting in 2007 for $600,000; she had only hoped for a few thousand to help with her daughter's college tuition. Determine the value of an old painting using several clues.

  1. Check the painting for dates or the painter's signature. Look near the lower right hand of the painting on older paintings or on the back of a work by a modern artist. Research the artist's name or era of the painting to determine the work's possible value. Use a reference such as the Smithsonian American Art Museum Research Database which has an archive of 600,000 records in its inventory of American painting and sculpture.

  2. Determine the style of art represented. Borrow art books from the library and compare famous styles of art to your work. Identify styles such as Impressionism or Surrealism which can go for substantial sums of money depending on the artist. Determine the style to give you an idea of when and where the painting was made.

  3. Check databases such as "The Art Loss Register" in case your work was stolen from a previous owner who contacted the company. Use the same resources to legitimize your current ownership by a team of specially-trained professional art historians.

  4. Contact the curator of a local art museum or an art history professor at a local college. Visit the website of such an institution and find the "Contact Information" section. Email or call to request an appointment to bring the painting to them and see if they can help you with information on its style, artist, history or possible value.

  5. Take the piece to an appraiser. Look for an appraiser with certification or membership in a professorial organization such as the American Society of Appraisers (ASA). Have the painting appraised for current value close to the time of auction, as art values change quickly.

  6. Tip

    Have the painting professionally cleaned. Oil paintings in particular tend to darken over time due to the accumulation of dirt and a yellowing of the varnish. "The Night Watch" by Rembrandt is a famous example of the vast difference a cleaning can make on the work.