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Unloved Antiques: ‘Starving Artist’ Paintings

by Mike Wilcox (11/14/11).

An example of an “Enrico” painting, otherwise known as a “starving art painting,” which were as mass-produced as a painting could be.

The 14th item in this series of Unloved Antiques is really more decorative arts than antique, but we get a huge number of requests for information regarding this item, more than for just about anything else. It’s what I call the “starving artist” painting. Based on the number I see, I think every home in North America has at least one over the mantle or in a spare bedroom.

By definition “starving artist” painting are those semi-impressionistic paintings in a heavy Impasto* style, and most depict Parisian street scenes, cafes or crashing waves on a beach, with a lighthouse perched on a cliff in the distance. Most tend to have single “first name” type signatures, such as “Enrico” or “Ricardo”—in some cases the signature is almost illegible—and sometime the last two digits of a date; E.G. “76” for 1976. It’s not uncommon to find almost identical examples of these painting showing up on online auctions sites or free appraisal forums.

At one particular forum I participated in some years ago, we had six people within one week respond to an initial request for information about their “Enrico,” saying they too had the exact same picture, but with different signatures.

While this seems puzzling to the owners of such paintings, it’s really not all that complicated. These paintings are produced as multiples of the same scene under contract for art wholesalers. Art wholesalers have been staging traveling “Starving Artist” or “Art on a Fence” sales in hotel conference rooms since the 1970s. These events are usually heavily advertised as a chance to buy “Genuine Oil Paintings at discount prices,” also offering upscale framing options, on which they make most of their profit. Each sale will have a wide selection of painted scenes, if a particular street or beach scene sells well, the wholesaler will order multiples of it for the next show. The signatures on these paintings are often just pseudonyms, the real artist’s name or even where they were painted remaining unknown.

Values for these paintings depends a great deal on the quality of the painting, subject matter,
size and the frame, but for the most part, at auction it’s not uncommon to see such paintings sell
for less than $50. Still, one has to be very careful when dealing with oil paintings; to release any possibility of doubt, any example of original artwork such as an oil painting or water color
should be examined by a qualified fine arts appraiser.

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*Impasto: In English, the borrowed Italian word impasto refers to a technique used in painting,
where paint is laid on very thickly, usually thickly enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. When dry, impasto provides texture, the paint appears to stand proud above of the canvas.

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Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins
Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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