HOW TO RESEARCH AN ARTWORK
By Nora Desruisseaux
Edited and Updated by Kathryn Wayne, Fine Arts Librarian
The resources available today, particularly those licensed for UC Berkeley students and faculty, make it possible to uncover the story behind a famous painting with relative ease. Given the artist’s name and the title or year of the work, it’s possible to determine a painting’s historical context, artist biography and provenance – and identify high-quality images found both in books and digitally in image databases.
Where do you begin your research when you have a work of art in front of you but don’t know what you’re looking at? Paintings inherited from relatives are often surrounded by family lore, which can sometimes provide helpful clues as to the piece’s identity, but can also keep us from viewing the art objectively. Murkier still are the histories of artworks plucked from yard sale piles and thrift store walls. Are they priceless treasures, or merely pleasant to look at? Finding the answers to these kinds of questions requires an entirely different approach to research, one that relies less on your ability to “google” and more on your ability to glean clues from the artwork in hand.
If the thought of a long research process is unappealing, many auction houses offer “free appraisal days,” when you may bring your art to the gallery and receive a no-obligation assessment and appraisal by auction house employees. Additionally, appraisers are often willing to offer advice on research resources for your particular artwork. The links below include information to several Bay Area auction houses (note: Christie’s and Sotheby’s only have field offices in San Francisco):
Bonhams and Butterfields
Christie's Fine Art Auctioneer
Clars Auction Gallery
THE RESEARCH PROCESS
The process of researching your artwork can be divided into three general steps: identification, authentication, and appraisal.
Differentiating a painting from a print may seem basic, but it can be tricky, particularly if the piece seems to have antique value. Don’t be fooled by an artwork’s age. Even if it’s been in the family since the early 20th century, it may still be an offset print – a photomechanical reproduction of an original painting – since the first offset printing press was invented in 1905.
- History Wired: Rubel Offset Lithographic Press
A brief history and explanation of offset printing from the Smithsonian Institute
Identifying an offset print requires that you look very closely at your artwork – in some cases, you may need a magnifying glass, etc. One approach is to examine any disparity between the perceived versus the actual texture of the piece. If the “painting” appears to have a heavy impasto, thick brushstrokes, etc., but the surface is actually smooth (this examination may require you to remove the artwork from its frame), it’s most likely a photomechanical reproduction. If you can see a dot pattern, particularly in the darker areas of the piece, that’s an indication that the art is an offset print. This dot pattern looks like a more refined version of the technique used in comic book illustrations and newspaper photos.
- Cornell University Library: Illustrated Book Study Resolution Samples
This site illustrates different printing techniques. The “Halftone Print” is an example of what an offset print looks like. The “structure sample” images in this illustrated guide to print techniques are particularly useful for identification.
In terms of value, offset prints don’t often have a strong resale, or auction, value, because they’re far removed from the artist’s hand. With the exception of contemporary prints, generally, an artist doesn’t originally choose the medium of offset printing; it merely serves as a way to reproduce or mass-produce an existing artwork. Because of this, an artist’s auction records don’t often play a role in the appraisal of offset prints – they are typically assigned a purely decorative value.
A basic rule of thumb for identifying an original print is to look for a visible pattern in the ink, as it serves as an indication that the art is a print. These patterns not only identify the work as a print, they help to identify the exact printing technique used by the artist.
Museum of Modern Art: What is a Print?
An animated tutorial to printing techniques
International Fine Prints Dealers Association: Learn About Prints
An explanation of printing terms
American Historical Print Collectors’ Society
Provides links to online resources, including a dictionary of terms relating to historical prints
Project Bernstein: Paper Database
A portal with links for sites that can help with the identification of paper types.
The Thomas L. Gravell Watermark Archive, University of Delaware Library
Click on "search the records" to identify any image you can make out in a watermark (crown, unicorn, etc.), and matching images will be retrieved from the database.
Identifying the artist of a painting is a key step in assessing the value and significance of an artwork. Whereas many prints are plate signed, even if they aren’t pencil signed, many paintings are either unsigned or signed indistinctly. However, there are reference tools to help decipher faint or illegible signatures.
Davenport’s Art Reference & Price Guide. Ventura, Calif.: Davenport's Art Reference. Current year shelved in Doe Reference Room N8670.D38
This annual publication lists every known artist with auction records. Although it can be a tedious task, if you can decipher a few letters in the signature, this book is likely to help you come up with a full name.
The Art Signature File, by G.B. David. Atlanta, Ga.: Antoine Versailles Publishing, 1998. Art History/Classics Library Room 308J - Reference N45.D38 1998
This book provides an index of images of noted artists’ signatures.
Additionally, if you can identify the time period (often a date is legible, even if the signature is not) and genre of your artwork, researching that genre and its noted artists may yield potential names.
Identifying a painting’s medium can also help determine its authenticity, in the case of artists who work only in certain media.
Tate Gallery: Glossary
This page is a dictionary not only of artistic media, but also artistic movements, etc.
Identifying the artist of an unsigned work can be difficult, but there are often clues available to look for. For example, any stamps on the back of the canvas or the stretcher bars can potentially identify the supplier of those materials. This, in turn, can identify your painting’s country of origin, as well as place it in a rough time period. Additionally, some artists used only certain suppliers, and this information can be used by an expert to authenticate (or discredit) your painting as the work of a particular artist.
National Portrait Gallery: British Artists’ Suppliers, 1650-1950
A listing of artists’ suppliers in England from 1650-1950
Gallery, auction and exhibition labels on the backs of paintings can also yield new directions for research. Knowing where a piece was exhibited or auctioned can be useful, particularly if a catalog for that exhibit or auction exists. Sometimes even shipping labels still affixed to a painting hint at the origin of a painting, or perhaps its prior owners.
Catalogues of Sales: 1734-1945. Sotheby & Co. 1734-1945. Part I (Reels 1-71; 1734-1850); Part II (Reels 1-148; 1851-1900); Part III (Reels 1-155; 1901-1945). News/Micro, MICROFILM 16663.Z (Shelved at NRLF)
Covering catalogues from the British Museum collection, each catalogue is preceded by a contents card detailing the names of the owners, date of sale, number of pages, lots, illustrations, location of the copy filmed, and the contents of the sale. To facilitate use, the entries in the guides for each part are arranged in the same chronological order as the catalogues in the microfilm collection. Contents are categorized under the following headings: Autographed Letters, Art (Objects), Art (Pictorial), Books, Coins and Medals, Mss. (Western), Mss. (Oriental), and Other. Approximately 10,000 catalogs on microfilm.
Catalogue Raisonnés represent the compilation of the “complete works” of an artist and can be found by using OskiCat, the online catalog for the UCB Library. They can be used to identify paintings, or at least to offer stylistic and technical comparison points. They are particularly useful for prints, as they identify, describe and usually illustrate each state of a print, making precise identification easier. They also offer edition size, paper and publication information useful for authenticating your print.
Print Council of America
Search by artist name to see if a catalogue raisonnés exists for a particular artist, specifically for their prints.
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
The Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts makes almost any work of art available for viewing by appointment. This service is particularly useful if, say, you have a purported Whistler print, and want to view it next to a comparable Whistler print in their collection.
In the case of an unsigned painting possibly by a noted artist, it’s often necessary to call upon an expert. A person specializing in the work of a particular artist, or in a particular genre of art can quickly authenticate or spot inconsistencies in a work. Appraisers charge a fee for their services.
International Society of Appraisers
American Society of Appraisers
Appraisers Association of America Inc.
Guide International des Experts et Spécialistes
This directory lists experts (most located in Europe) and their contact information in order of the artist in which they specialize, as well as by individual’s name. Note: this title is not available in the UCB Library.
National Antique and Art Dealers Association of America
12 East 56th Street, New York, NY 10022 / 212-826-9707
Authors of catalogue raisonnés or artist monographs may be willing to offer an opinion on an important artwork, particularly if they’re in looking for works to include in a publication. They may be contacted through a publisher, and, if they are active professors, sometimes their contact information is available online, through the websites of the universities at which they teach.
As mentioned above, auction house appraisers can often help with research, although this usually requires that you enter into an agreement to sell your art with this gallery.
Some museum curators are willing to point researchers in the right direction, particularly if they themselves are experts in that specific field.
Some gallery owners are willing to offer a casual opinion as to the authenticity of a work. Keep in mind, though, that if they are interested in purchasing your artwork and selling it in their gallery, they stand to benefit if you are under the impression that your art is of low-value.
When trying to ascertain the value of your artwork, auction records for that particular artist can be useful. Most websites require a subscription to view their price databases and auction records, but they also provide additional, free information. If nothing else, you can determine whether your artist has any auction records, even if you can’t see the prices those works realized.
The Artfact database contains auction records for antiques, art, jewelry, and many special interest categories traditionally sold by auction houses. The free version of Artfact allows browsing/searching of upcoming auctions, 6 million abridged auction records, and nearly 30,000 objects plus access to the Fine Art Price database. For free access, click on Sign-in/Register in the left margin. To access the entire database, a fee is required.
This site offers detailed information about the galleries and auction houses offering works by specific artists.
Another, less detailed, site offering subscription auction database information.
This site offers biographies of the artists they list, as well as information about galleries, dealers, etc., that represent or offer works by those artists. Full access is available through any UCB Library public computer.
Getty Provenance Index Databases
Includes archival documents (1550-1840), sale catalogs (1650-1840) and public collections from American and British Institutions (1500-1990).
Hislop’s Art Sales Index via ARTINFO
The Art Sales Index database contains over 3.5 million auction records for paintings, prints, photographs, sculpture, works on paper, and miniatures dating back to the 1920s. Over 200,000 artists from more than 500 auction houses worldwide are represented. Free registration required.
Lugt’s Répertoire Online
Online edition of Lugt's Répertoire des Catalogues de Ventes Publiques, fN8650.L8, v.1-4, Art/Classics, lists over 60,000 art sales catalogues dated 1600-1900 from libraries in Europe and the U.S.A. The catalogues provide information on the provenance of art objects, the history of collecting, and historical market trends. Numerous catalogues have been added to the original work and corrections made. Searchable by Lugt number, date, place, provenance, auction house and existing copies. In addition, the Libraries database allows the searching of libraries holding art sales catalogues. To search either Répertoire or Libraries, use scroll bar on left-hand side of page to scroll down to bottom to locate the two search bars--Click on either Search Répertoire or Search Libraries to open up a search window.
New York Public Library, Auction Sales Indexes
New York Public Library guide to auction sale indexes, price guides and catalogs. Because individual auction houses do not issue their own indexes, the use of these compilations provides the best approach to finding sale information. Each index provides different coverage in terms of dates, contents and scope. This guide includes the following sections: Chart of Subjects Covered by Various Auction Indexes; Current Auction Sales Indexes; Retrospective Auction Sales Indexes; Price Guides; Electronic Resources for Auction Sales; Publications of Sotheby's and Christie's.
SCIPIO (Access via http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ARTH/ under Art History Resources/Auction-Related Information)
SCIPIO, or Sales Catalog Index Project Input Online, was formed to help researchers identify annually published auction catalogs; it is a particularly valuable resource for those seeking information on the provenance of art objects and rare books, connoisseurship, the history of collecting and collectors, historical and contemporary market trends, and the relationship between art and economics. Includes sales catalogs dating from the late sixteenth century to currently scheduled auctions. Important private sales as well as sale catalogs from all major European and North American auction houses are covered in subject areas of world art from all time periods, books and manuscripts, painting, sculpture, drawing, prints and photographs, furniture, decorative and applied arts, musical instruments, and objets d'art.
Condition also affects the value of artwork, and being able to identify condition problems can assist in the appraisal process.
Fine Arts Conservancy: Glossary
An illustrated dictionary of condition terms, both for paintings and works on paper.
ART THEFT AND FORGERIES
Once you’ve determined exactly what you have along with provenance and its value you’ll want to ensure both that the artwork has never been stolen, and that, should it be stolen in the future, you’ll have the best possible chance of recovering it.
Object ID: An international standard for describing art, antiques and antiquities
This organization provides a checklist of the type of documentation current art owners should develop for the objects in their collection. Law enforcement agencies use this documentation in their recovery efforts.
Federal Bureau of Investigation: Art Theft Program
This is the site for the National Stolen Art File. It lists, by region, noted artworks that have been reported stolen, as well as art that has been recently recovered.
Art Cellar Exchange: Art Theft Links
This portal provides several links aimed at tracing the provenance and ownership of works that may have been stolen during WWII.
The AAM Guide to Provenance Research by Nancy H. Yeide. Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums, c2001. N3999.Y45 2001 AH/C Reference Guide for tracing the ownership history of works of art. Focused on cultural property looted by the Nazis and others during WWII, it is divided into three parts: Basic Provenance Research and Principles; Holocaust-Era Provenance Research; and Appendixes, which include bibliographies of collections, dealer archives, and “red flag names” compiled by the Office of Strategic Services. Includes index and bibliographical references.
For information on art markets overall, see issues of the Art Newspaper and journals such as ArtNews and Art In America
LOCATING JOURNAL ARTICLES
To locate journal articles on artists and their works, search the following periodical indexes located on the Art History Classics web page at: http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ARTH/arthistresources.html#artindexes
Art Index Retrospective and Art Full Text. New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1929-present.
Art Index Retrospective is a bibliographic database that cumulates citations to the printed volumes of Art Index (Volumes 1-32) published between 1929-1984. It indexes journals published in the fields of archaeology, architecture, art history, city planning, computer applications and graphics, crafts, film, folk art, graphic arts, industrial design, interior design, landscape architecture, museology, painting, photography, sculpture. Citations do not include abstracts or text. Access via the AH/C Library Web site under Art History Resources/Art Indexes.
Art Full Text provides full text (with images) for approximately 20% of the journals from 1997 to present. There are approximately 325 journal titles currently indexed covering the fields mentioned above. Emerging areas of art research have also been expanded, including non-western art, contemporary art, feminist art criticism, crafts, costume, and textiles. The citations found in this index also include abstracts (50 to 300 words describing the content and scope of the article) from 1984 to the present. Access via the AH/C Library Web site under Art History Resources/Art Indexes.
ARTbibliographies Modern. Bethesda, MD: Cambridge Scientific Abstracts, c1999-
ABM is an excellent resource on modern and contemporary arts dating from the late 19th century onwards, and including photography since its invention. It includes abstracts of English and foreign-language material on famous and lesser-known artists, movements, and trends. Coverage is wide-ranging and includes performance art and installation works, video art, computer and electronic art, body art, graffiti, artists' books, theatre arts, conservation, crafts, ceramic and glass art, ethnic arts, graphic and museum design, fashion, and calligraphy, as well as traditional media including illustration, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and drawing. The database includes abstracts of journal articles, books, essays, exhibition catalogs, dissertations, exhibition reviews as well as web sites. Access via the AH/C Library Web site under Art History Resources/Art Indexes.
Bibliography of the History of Art (BHA). Santa Monica: J. Paul Getty Trust.
The name BHA has been used informally to refer to a group of databases: RAA, RILA, BHA, and IBA. The data available on the Getty Web site as of April 1, 2010, comprises two databases: BHA and IBA. BHA (Bibliography of the History of Art/Bibliographie d'histoire de l'art) covers the years 1990-2007; the Getty Web version includes all records with abstracts in French or English and all subject terms in French and English. IBA (International Bibliography of the History of Art) covers 2008 and part of 2009; the Getty Web version includes all records with abstracts in English and all subject terms in French and English. A third database will be added to the Getty Web site during the coming months: RILA (Répertoire de la litterature de l'art), which covers 1975–1989. At present, the Getty has no plans to add RAA (Répertoire d'art et d'archéologie), which covers 1973–1989. Access via the AH/C Library Web site under Art History Resources/Art Indexes.
LOCATING BOOKS AND EXHIBITION CATALOGUES
To find books and exhibition catalogues written on an artist use the Library’s online catalogs available via http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/ under “Online Catalogs”
OskiCat (UCB only)
Melvyl, (All UC campuses)
Worldcat (Numerous libraries worldwide including museum libraries)
Art Market Research: A Guide to Methods and Sources, by Tom McNulty. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, c2006. Art History/Classics Library Room 308J - Reference N5200.M39 2006
Explores the major venues of art acquisition, serving as a useful tool for researching the value of decorative and utilitarian arts. Covers the basics of artwork analysis and documentation as well as research techniques into the history and provenance of a work. Artists’ catalogues raisonnés, exhibition catalogues, dictionaries and encyclopedias are identified, with full annotations.
Copyright © 2013 by the Library, University of California, Berkeley. All rights reserved.
Cover Reproduction: Marcel Duchamp Tu m’, 1918. Last revised 11/04/13.