I regularly appraise art at public clinic events for the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. Having just completed one of these I wanted to share some thoughts on buying and collecting art for the average person who does not have an in-depth knowledge of art or art history.
Naturally some of the art we see are pieces that have been in a family for years and the owners are looking as much for information on how old, who the artist was, and biographical information as value. But often people bring in items they have bought thinking or hoping that it is worth more than they paid. These are often pieces bought at a flea market, a garage sale, an estate sale, or even found at a thrift store. It is this “investment” buyer group I want to speak to primarily in this article.
Several people in this last appraisal event brought in paintings that were clearly made to be decorative paintings to hang behind a couch. These were signed, oil on canvas, nicely framed, landscapes that looked very nice. However their value is in the decorative market rather than the fine art or even collectible market. That means they are not worth very much. (Quick hint - avoid obviously newer paintings that are sized to fit behind a couch. They are most likely decorative not collectible.)
To determine age look at the canvas and stretchers in the back, if the canvas is white, the wood has no darkening from oxidization, and the canvas is attached to the stretcher with staples you are looking at a painting that is less than 30 years old. Look up the artists name at a library or on the internet. If the artist cannot be found I recommend you skip that one. There are a few times doing this will miss a valuable painting but it is about the same odds as winning the lottery and thus a poor buying strategy unless you have special knowledge.
I really recommend those who might be buying art go to museums or art galleries to develop a sense of what valuable art looks like. It is surprising how that can help develop an “eye” for what is collectible, thus worth money, and what is not. You do not have to become an expert, but the more knowledge you have the better a buyer you will be.
One couple really impressed me with the quality of their buying. They had focused on engravings, particularly copper plate engravings. They had some knowledge about this type of art but were far from experts, so they brought them in to affirm the items they bought were as good as they thought they might be. They brought in 5 pieces which included 2 - 19th century engravings and 3 - 16th century engravings one of which was a small but original “Rembrandt”. All were bought at local sales for very low prices. The lowest valued item was in the $400 range and the “Rembrandt” has the potential to be worth up to $10,000 depending on what state it is determined to be in. (Artists had a tendency to make changes, so an engraving “first state” means first design, second, third etc. state means alterations were made. The date when it was printed off of the copper plate also affects value. Those printed in the life time of the artist are the most valuable. However, they can be printed several hundred years later off the original plate and are still considered original works of art. One indication of this is the copper plate shows signs of wear over the years and so the print is less well defined and thus the engraving is worth less.) I believe this one was a fairly early state but I recommended an expert in 16th century engravings at an auction house look at it to determine the exact state, as I see so few of this type of item.
This couple had a good “eye” plus some knowledge and turned a bit of time at sales into a very nice investment. This shows that collectible art is still possible to buy today at bargain prices. So visit those museums, read up on some type of art you like and go out shopping. I guarantee there are still valuable pieces out there to be found.