Identifying a work of art I: Gathering evidence
I. Gathering Evidence: Looking at the Object
Start with the evidence provided by the object itself. Gather as much information as you can by thoroughly examining the front, back, and all sides (including the inside, if applicable) of the piece. Look first for a signature and a date. If the signature is illegible, copy it and see what possible letters the artist’s name starts with—if you can identify the first three letters you have a good start. Write down all possible variations if any letters are ambiguous.
Look for any marks that might have been part of the creating or manufacturing process: signatures; monograms; hallmarks; stamps; inscriptions on the back, stretchers, frame, or base; foundry markings. If it is a painting, look at the stretchers; were they manufactured commercially? If so, this will give an indication of the age of the work. If a sculpture is cast bronze, look for foundry marks, copyright date, edition number, and where the foundry is located. Look also for markings that would give clues about the history of the object: gallery labels, exhibition labels, auction labels, or owners’ stamps.
With paintings and works on paper, always examine the back of the object. There is often a great deal of information—inscriptions, labels, dealer numbers, collector’s marks—on the stretcher or the back of a canvas or sheet of paper. With sculpture, look underneath and (if it is hollow cast) inside the object for inscriptions or signs of its age.
Take photos or make drawings of these marks exactly as they look—no detail is too small to dismiss. Make notes on exactly where the marks appear.
Determine what the object is made of and what materials/techniques the artist used, as specifically as possible. If the object is a painting, is it oil, acrylic, watercolor, tempera, or other material? Is a work on paper an original or is it a multiple? (look for an edition number, e.g. 3/50). If the work is a print, is it an engraving, etching, wood cut, aquatint, serigraph, silkscreen, lithograph, something else? If it is a sculpture, is it bronze, plaster, wood, marble, stone, mixed media, other? Many of the books listed in this guide include descriptions and illustrations that will help you to identify the materials and techniques used to create a work of art.
Look at a print or drawing under strong magnification, or a 10x loop. If there is color, do you see uneven pooling of color? This might indicate an engraving, hand-colored with watercolors. Can you see how the artist achieved halftones (gray areas)? Is there cross-hatching or do you see an overall stipple effect? Study the differences between etchings, engravings, and other kinds of prints to become familiar with what characterizes the different techniques.
Additionally, try to determine what type of surface the art is created on. If it is a painting, is it on stretched canvas or linen, a panel, a board, a piece of paper, or a piece of paper mounted on a canvas? It is a collage? There are many possibilities.
Make notes on whatever information you have on the object’s history: when and where you got it, what you know about its prior ownership, any information provided by previous owners or dealers. Make note of the source of each piece of information. Don’t assume that anecdotes passed along by former collectors and family history about the object are necessarily factual, but collect them nevertheless.
Make additional notes about the condition of the work. Condition affects value. For sale or legal purposes the condition of a work of art must be determined by a professional. However, you can look for discoloration along the mat edge, which is caused by non-archival matting materials and creates a dark yellow-orange to brown acid burn where the mat meets the paper. Additionally, older pieces are often framed with corrugated cardboard, which also burns the paper and creates staining that can cause striated dark burn marks. On an oil painting the varnish is often yellowed and discolored. Many paintings have an overall pattern of small hairline cracks called craquelure. If any of the paint is lifting or cupping, the paint is unstable and should be looked at by a professional conservator. Make notes of tears, missing paint, discoloration, and staining.
Identifying a work of art II: Finding information
II. Finding Information: Researching Artists, Marks, and Similar Objects
If you have an attribution of the object, start by researching that artist or factory to see if the object seems to look like other objects by the same artist or manufacturer. If you do find similar works, compile a list (with images) of similar objects. Look for compelling similarities of style, subject, materials, and dates.
Many decorative arts objects have similar shapes and designs and in these cases you are looking for more than just general similarities. Do some reverse comparison. For example, you think your silver vase looks like one made by Paul Storr, and you learn through researching Paul Storr that all of his silver is marked with London hallmarks. Does your piece have London hallmarks? If so, those marks should correspond to ones that Storr would have used, and you can use a reference book on marks to compare them.
With paintings and prints bear in mind that it has been a common practice for several centuries for artists and amateurs to copy esteemed Old Masters. Sometimes a painting looks old but is in fact a later copy of an old picture. It is also true that there have been amateur “Sunday painters” (and draftsmen) since at least the eighteenth century. Not every work of art—even a work of art with a signature—was made by an established artist for whom information is available.
Beginning with the Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon (Section III: Finding Biographical Information about an Artist), check biographical resources in the library’s reference section to find information about the artist and if possible to see where the artist’s works are collected. Check the library’s catalog to find books pertaining to the artist and cross-reference the information about the artist and how it pertains to your work of art.
Check auction sales databases such as ArtNet to find images of other works by your artist and compare them with the work you have. If you only have only the first three letters of the artist’s name, you can search ArtNet to try to find a name that is close to the name on your artwork. Look to see if any works you find in this way are in the same material and style as your art object.
If you do not have an attribution, if you don’t know who the artist is or exactly where the work is from, look for the artwork by the general type or category of work (e.g. 19th century European paintings, American Art Deco bronzes, etc.) Browse through encyclopedias, dictionaries, and histories on the type of object you are looking for, or search the database called ArtFact by keywords, and look for things that are similar in shape, materials, style, and/or pattern. This will help you narrow down the field of possibilities. Again, look for compelling similarities, and keep track of what you find so you can go back and check it again. Be aware that this kind of searching requires much time and hard work and patience, not to mention a certain amount of luck.
If the object has marks on it, look for reference books on marks of the type of material you have: silver, porcelain, gold, glass, etc. Some categories of items are marked in standard ways (particularly British silver), others are marked according to the caprice of the maker. Tracking down marks can be time-consuming, but it is one of the best ways to identify objects. Many objects, however, are unmarked.
Identifying a work of art III: Assessing value
III. Assessing Value: Finding Auction Sale Prices or Finding an Appraiser
Once you know what the object is and/or who the artist is, you can search for similar objects or works by the same artist through auction results databases (See the tab called Estimate/find the value of a work of art). Look for items of similar style, date, material, and condition. These can give you a ballpark sense of value.
There are many factors that contribute to valuation that must be determined by a professional. If you are seeking a value conclusion, a formal appraisal should be prepared by a professional appraiser. The American Society of Appraisers can be used to find appraisers of gems and jewelry, fine arts, rare books, antiques, and decorative arts. Appraisals are legal documents that conclude a valuation for insurance, damage or loss, estate taxation, and distribution of property or for charitable contributions and donations.