The Masterpiece in the Attic

Online auctions and the larger marketplace for older, original oil paintings are in an interesting new cycle open to all sorts of savvy (and not so savvy) buyers. America is doing its largest intergenerational offloading of stuff, including those proverbial masterpieces in grandma’s attic.

Some paintings are, well, better left in the attic. You know. The cigar-smoking boxer playing poker with his dog buddies. On second thought, that could be a keeper.

Anyway, there are lucky strikes, like a friend of mine whom I advised to have a long-held oil painting in his family’s proverbial attic appraised. After rejecting an auction house’s low ball offer to buy for $1,000, my friend advisedly took the painting to a good appraiser who estimated its value in the $50,000 range.

Honest appraisal is key, but here are a few tips:

  1. Clean it up. You’d be amazed how old oil paintings, especially those hung over fireplaces, can recapture their original glow with a professional cleaning. Don’t do this yourself! Varnish yellows with age and certain types (e.g. “damar” varnishes) can be removed and reapplied. Oil paint over time absorbs dirt like a sponge. Cleaning can bring back the original vibrancy, painter’s intent and skill.
  2. Keep the frame. Old frames are not just potentially aesthetic elements but can be forensic clues to provenance (age and ownership chain). Also some painters signed/dated the back of frames, stretcher bars or backs of canvas or panels. Don’t just pitch that old frame because it doesn’t match the new wallpaper.
  3. Flip it over. The reverse side of an oil painting can reveal more facts about the painting than the front.
  4. Look for/don’t remove old price or sales stickers or tags on back.
  5. Do-it-yourself homework. The internet makes it alot easier for non-experts to research an artist and painting. Sometimes a simple search process can lead to surprises!
  6. X-rays and other science. The tech advances in art science are revolutionizing authentication, forensics and valuation. An x-ray can detect a forgery or a painting underneath. Chemical analysis of layers of oil paint can validate dating like an acheologist’s dig into layers of earth. Old paint is, after all, made from bright earth and minerals (sienna, ochers, umbers and so on) and natural binders and additives (animal hide glues, resins, tree extracts, egg yolks and so on).
  7. Listen to your “I just like that painting” instinct . Some people underestimate their gut instinct about why a painting appeals to them. Many valuable artworks have a provenance shaped by all sorts of “I like that” appreciators over time.
  8. Visual stories. Masterworks and many lesser works have a story, a tale to tell not only through the intrinsic narration of their design but their history and provenance. If you know or can discover that story, preserve it and tell it!

So, good hunting!