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Fine Art/How to recognize a quality painting


I would like to learn what to look for in a quality old painting, maybe the frame construction as far as age? I go to estate sales, but don't know what I should be looking for. Is there a book for novices that tells the basics for beginners? Your help would be most appreciated.

EXCELLENT question.

At every auction, with every painting, I ask this myself.  Separating wheat from chaff is always a puzzle, and provides enough challenge to keep collecting an interesting pursuit.  

Beyond basic art appreciation courses taken a long time ago in college, I never relied on one book to tell me what to look for.  I have relied on the advice of others, primarily.  Ask, Ask, Ask.  Dealers, collectors, buyers, sellers, artists, teachers...never hesitate to strike up a conversation with anyone about is the primary way one learns.  Go visit the best dealers and pick their brains.  You don't have to buy champagne-level art to gain wisdom from their insight.  They'll share.  

Some basic components I look for are as follows.

The Picture:  Do I LOVE it?  Does it speak to me?  Is this painting in my niche (I like landscape paintings)?  Is this a beautiful composition?  Does the painting have style?  Is it bold or subtle?  Is his oil painterly...can I see brushstrokes, and does the paint have texture?  Does a watercolor look slapdash or does it have light touch, not overworked?  Does it make sense?  What of its perspective and depth?  Its color, tone, mood?  Does it convey emotion?  Have I been thinking about it in the 2 weeks since I saw it in the catalog?  Will I still love it when I'm 64?

Condition: Is it in good shape?  Has the canvas been re-lined?  Is paint cracked, peeling, flaking or scaley?  Any mildew? Is it on wood and can I tell which way the grain runs and is their warping? Is there in-painting?  What size is it?  What does the reverse side look like?  Is it salvageable or would restoration work cost more than the painting would be worth?  Have I seen it under black u/v light to identify % of the painting that has been retouched?

Artist:  Is it signed or initialed?  Is it a known artist?  Listed in an art reference book?  Is this work representative of the artist's best work?  Is it merely a sketch?  Is this picture typical or atypical of the artist's work?  

Value:  Does this painting have appeal to others? If I had to sell it tomorrow, who would be a likely buyer?  Is the market littered with this artist's work or paintings such as this?  Can I find a track record of recent sales?  

Frame:  Is it a nice package, and does the frame complement the picture?  Is it original to the picture?  Is it highly detailed?  Gilt?  Gesso?  Carved wood?  A particular style?  Suitable to the period in which the picture was executed?  All this said, though the frame plays a part, it is maybe 5% of my decision on a picture.  It's all about the art.  Collecting antique frames is a whole category unto itself and there are dealers who pursue this exclusively.  

Always, always...look at a painting under very bright light.  

One book I HAVE used extensively is my dog-earred copy of Davenport's Art Reference & Price Guide.  A friend gave me this encyclopedia of information on thousands of listed artists, and their public auction track records.  A handy guide to have in the car.

Hit your library and seek out the magazines that specialize in Art and Antiques.  One to which I have subscribed is American Art Review.  Not only will you find excellent stories about fine art, styles of art, and artists, many top-notch trustworthy dealers can be found advertising in these magazines.  

I will say that sometimes you simply have to "pay up" for a painting.  It can be excruciating, but collectors have to realize that unlike missing a stock at price level one, you don't always have an opportunity to reenter at price level two.  Paintings may not re-emerge in your lifetime.  If you see something you love, don't regret paying a little more.  But set limits, and impose some self-discipline.  If you find yourself "needing to win" at every auction, it's time to reassess.

Don't be afraid to make mistakes.  I have.  Most certainly.  Some big ones. Fortunately, they have added to my knowledge and enabled me to go on and make fewer mistakes than successes.  So, I call my mistakes "tuition".  One thing I have learned is it is better to put more of my art purchasing budget into fewer, pricier paintings than into more, less pricey paintings.  Buy Quality, not Quantity.  It is tempting and understandable to enter as a new collector slowly, but the risk is you will end up with a lot of trash that you tire of quickly.  

Ultimately time, experience and gut decisions play a big part.  I am still learning, I don't kid myself that I am anything but a rookie (despite this ridiculous title of "AllExperts"), and it is always CAVEAT EMPTOR.  

Best of luck,

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Stuart Cartwright


American Fine Art Paintings.
Oils, Watercolors, Sketches. Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. Hudson River School, Pennsylvania Academy, Cape Ann artists, Ash Can, Woodstock, Florida Indian River, American Impressionists, etc. I can provide some background about artists and perhaps a rough appraisal or guidance towards obtaining a value. I am acquainted with many of the best American art dealers and auction houses. Original works only, I do not follow the print market. I do NOT field questions about prints.

Important to know
I am not expert in European art. I encourage you to send questions on European artists to other experts on this service. NO PRINTS:I encourage you to seek help on prints elsewhere. Two sites come to mind: and


I have been collecting original American Fine Art for over 20 years. I have curated art shows, and I have served as a dealer, providing appraisals and guidance for the last 8 years.

Bachelor of Arts Master of Business Administration

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