Harry Rinker’s Tips on Researching and Authenticating Oil Paintings – Part II

This portrait of a German woman in oil on canvas is in good condition regarding age, with some scratches on frame and one small restoration on canvas. It is dated 1897.

This portrait of a German woman in oil on canvas is in good condition regarding age, with some scratches on frame and one small restoration on canvas. It is dated 1897.

There is a small strip of paper glued to the back (written in German) detailing the artist’s vitals – born in 1848 and died in 1917.

There is a small strip of paper glued to the back (written in German) detailing the artist’s vitals – born in 1848 and died in 1917.

This column continues my response to a request from Steve Dennis of Orlando, Fla. for a few insider tips that would help him decide whether to buy an oil painting that he might find at a garage/yard sale or flea market for resale. Steve wants to buy low and sell high in a short period of time.

I encourage auctioneers, collectors, dealers, and others to develop a quick sort mentality, i.e., divided objects quickly into a small number of categories, to deal with the infinite variety of items in the antiques and collectibles field. In the case of oil paintings, I use six groups: (1) paint-by-number artists, (2) starving/hack artists, (3) department/furniture store art, (4) self-taught amateurs, (5) local artists with some academic training (emphasis on “some”), (6) and professionally trained artists. I discussed the first five groups in Part 1 of this column.

Most collectors focus on works by professionally trained artists, i.e., those artists who are documented in art texts and whose works are included in museum collections. This sixth group divides into four subgroups: (a) copyists, (b) portraitists, (c) realist painters, and (d) abstract painters.

Copyists: Copying masterpieces by academically trained artists is a centuries-old practice. Thousands of copies flooded into the American art market between the 1870s and 1920s. There is a viable secondary market for these copies, many done by well-trained artists. Do not confuse these exact copies of period art with paintings done by contemporary artists in the style of a famous artist. The market for these latter works is very limited.

Portraitists: Early American portraits, i.e., portraits dating prior to 1820, have appeal. Many fall within the folk art category. Portraits painted after 1820 are tough sells unless the subject is known (ideally someone famous regionally or nationally), the painting has an unusual feature, e.g., a person holding a dog or recognized landscape scene in the background, or is by a famous artist, e.g., Whistler, William Merritt Chase, etc.

Realist Painters: Most collectors favor realistic paintings, generic landscape and town scenes that speak period and are highly decorative. The artist is the key. Name counts more than aesthetics. It is a market where artists float in and out of favor. When researching value, use only sales records from the past three to five years.

Abstract Painters: While pre-1960 abstract art has stood the test of time, more recent abstract art has not. The current economic crisis has greatly tempered prices in the post-1960 modern art market, especially for contemporary painters. Many contemporary artists change styles as they respond to shifts in taste. Always consider if the style of the artist is in or out of vogue.

harry-rinker4It is time to return to the hunt. Never buy a painting that is not signed. Ideally, the signature should contain a first and last name (a middle initial is a plus), initials (three is better than two), or one or two initials and a last name. A date is a bonus. Many artists provide title and/or location information via a label on the back of the frame or painted directly on the canvas, a major aid in researching the artist and piece.

Examine the signature area closely to determine if the signature began life as part of the painting or was added later. If the signature area appears disturbed in anyway, be suspicious. The varnish surface surrounding the signature should be identical to that over the signature. The quality of the signature should match that of the painting. If the signature appears above the surface varnish, it is false.

My favorite story involves an abstract painting that I saw at an appraisal clinic in Nashville, Tenn. The signature on the painting was Monet. When asked if it was authentic, my response was “to the best of my knowledge Monet never signed his paintings with a felt tip pen.”

Be suspicious of all oil paintings that have a 3-by-5-inch to 8-by-10-inch preprinted biography on the back, especially if the biography is about a European artist for whom you can find little to no information. Most of these artists are not as well-known as their biographies imply.

Also, never buy any oil painting (or print for that matter) purchased at auction on a cruise ship. This art rarely sells for more than ten cents on the dollar in the secondary market. The art is over-hyped, and the purchase price is elevated by professional shills in the audience.

This large Modernist oil of “Times Square in New York City” was painted by George Schwacha in 1960, which puts it right on the edge of the time frame where the prices for these kinds of contemporary pieces can tumble.

This large Modernist oil of “Times Square in New York City” was painted by George Schwacha in 1960, which puts it right on the edge of the time frame where the prices for these kinds of contemporary pieces can tumble.

The signature by George Schwacha.

The signature by George Schwacha.

Avoid all oil paintings that are damaged or show heavy signs of repainting or repairs on the back of the canvas. You are not in the painting restoration business. However, if the surface image is dark, the pigments show minimal age cracking, and the canvas is strong, you might want to take a chance. Usually, surface darkness means the varnish has darkened. If all that has to be done to revitalize the painting is remove and replace the old varnish, a purchase might be a worthwhile gamble. Do not attempt to remove or replace the varnish. Have it done by a professional.

Examine the quality of the frame. If the frame is high quality and has aging characteristics that suggest it is 75 years old or older, it improves the chances that the oil painting it contains has strong value. Older paintings can be reframed. Modern copies are put into older frames to make them appear older than they are. Every rule has exceptions.

The frame itself can have value. In the case of many late nineteenth and early twentieth century genre oil paintings, the frame often is worth more than the painting. This assumes the frame has no or minimal damage. If the frame is heavily damaged, discount it from a value point of view but still use it to assess the potential age of the oil painting it contains.

The key information you need is whether or not the artist has a viable secondary market. This market needs to be firmly established and extend over a minimum period of five or more years. The fastest way to check is via an Internet search. Today’s phone technology allows you to conduct a search while standing in front of the oil painting that you are considering buying.

Do a general search before turning to specialized websites. Be creative with name searches. Although an artist may use initials for a first or middle name, the key to finding the artist on the web is to know the full name. In some cases, the first and last name is the key, skipping the middle name even if know.

A number of specialized websites provide auction records of art sales. Most are subscription driven. Artfact.com allows you free access to one year’s worth of records. It is a great offer and worth utilizing. Other sites allow two to five free searches. Use these wisely.

Often there is more than one artist with the same name. When this occurs, seek out images of the artist’s work. If the work’s style does not conform to the oil painting you are seeing, it is most likely not by that artist.

A Still Life of Fish and Lobster,” by Alexander Dalziel (1781-1832), oil on canvas. The painting is signed and dated 1827.

A Still Life of Fish and Lobster,” by Alexander Dalziel (1781-1832), oil on canvas. The painting is signed and dated 1827.

When considering buying an oil painting at a garage/yard sale or flea market, you do not have time to run to your local art museum or library to check out the artists in their reference books and auction sales catalogs. You need to make a decision on the spot. Sellers will not hold a painting until you come back. You must make a yes or not decision on the spot. Library research is an after the purchase activity.

Think auction rather than gallery or private sale if the goal is to turn the oil painting quickly. Do not dismiss eBay. EBay has proven to be a great market for decorative and regional art. After checking eBay past auction results and discovering similar paintings sold well, use it.

If your painting is by a regional artist, then sell it at a middle range auction house in its area of its origin. Otherwise, send it to a middle-level house near a large metropolitan area. One always dreams of a find that is sold at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. However, unless it is a top of the line piece, it will be buried within the sale. Better to be a star in an auction at a lesser house than a peon in an auction at a major house. Today I recommend to clients that they sell at auction houses that have active Internet bidding during the sale. Follow this advice.

Finally, be prepared to make mistakes. You will. View them as tuition. Buying art on the fly is a learned experience, emphasis on “learned.” Once you completed the learning process, you have the one thing that counts more than any other when making the decision to buy or not to buy—your gut.


Rinker Enterprises and Harry L. Rinker are on the Internet. Check out his Web site.

You can listen and participate in “WHATCHA GOT?,” Harry’s antiques-and-collectibles radio call-in show on Sunday mornings between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern Time. It streams live on the Genesis Communications Network.

“SELL, KEEP OR TOSS? HOW TO DOWNSIZE A HOME, SETTLE AN ESTATE, AND APPRAISE PERSONAL PROPERTY” (House of Collectibles, an imprint of the Random House Information Group), Harry’s latest book, is available at your favorite bookstore and via Harry’s Web site http://www.harryrinker.com.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the 20th century. Selected letters will be answered on this site. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5093 Vera Cruz Road, Emmaus, PA 18049. You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered. Please indicate that these are questions for WorthPoint.

Copyright © Rinker Enterprises, Inc. 2009

WorthPoint—Discover Your Hidden Wealth

Join WorthPoint on Twitter and Facebook.

  • j ellis

    i am concerned with you stating that one should never purchase a painting if it isnt signed?
    i know certain painters didnt always sign?
    marc chagall did not sign all his paintings….

  • In your view hat sort of impact on value does restoration have on an oil painting by a collected artist of say early 20th century, if it involves patching or lining the canvas as well as cleaning it. All thoughts appreciated


  • ron taylor

    i have an oil painting which has a foreign scene like dusk looking over a moonlite sea with palms and a silloeted camel with person holding reins signed trad or similar any ideas as to artist or rarety regards ron

  • Great ideas here. I’m not sure I agree with them all, but it more or less makes sense to me.

  • Kate

    Can you tell me any more about the German portrait of the woman dated 1897? Where did it come from? Where is it now? Any idea of who painted it?

  • Kate

    I am looking for more 19th C. paintings depicting German peasants, like the painting shown in this article (German woman dated 1897).

  • Loree Johnson

    I am searching for an artist (oil Painter) by the name of
    Peter Kim. I have a Painting of a young lady sitting with long hair.Could you give me any info.
    Thank you.Loree

Ready to invest in WorthPoint? →

Securities offered through North Capital Private Securities, Member FINRA/SIPC