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

This 19th-century painting on canvas of a mother and two children, is listed as having been cleaned and is in very good condition.

This 19th-century painting on canvas of a mother and two children, is listed as having been cleaned and is in very good condition.

The back of this painting shows the aged finish on the stretcher and a dark surface color.

The back of this painting shows the aged finish on the stretcher and a dark surface color.

Steve Dennis in Orlando and Ian Atken in Toronto are two of my favorite garage sale aficionados. Steve and Ian ask about their latest finds by participating in WHATCHA GOT?, my nationally syndicated antiques and collectibles call-in radio show that airs Sunday mornings 8 to 10 a.m. Eastern. If your local station does not carry the show, you can listen on gcnlive.com (click first on “Listen to Talk” and then on Channel 1).

In an e-mail, Steve asked for a few insider tips that would help him decide which oil paintings would and would not be worth buying for resale. His goal is to buy low, sell high, turning the paintings over in a short period of time.

CAVEAT: This column deals only with oil paintings. Various types of prints—e.g., etchings and lithographs, watercolors, and artwork in other mediums—are not covered. While some tips also apply to these categories, others will not. To read Part 2 of this article, click here.

When someone mentions oil painting, the tendency is to automatically think “oil on canvas.” Canvas is just one surface medium. Oil paintings are found on artist board, ceramics, glass, paper, slate and wood, just to name a few.

Be suspicious of any framed and matted “oil painting” that is covered with glass and has a flat back. The odds are over 99 percent that the painting is a print. If in doubt, remove the painting/print from the frame. If fact, all artwork should be inspected outside its frame. Has the painting been cut down? Has it been relined? The frame’s rabbet can hide this information.

Because a picture is on a stretcher does not mean it is an oil painting. Reproductions of paintings often are printed on textured canvas-like surfaces, often with pseudo brush strokes, and attached to stretchers. Examine brush stroke lines to make certain they correspond to the appropriate color changes. If they do not, the stroke indicators are false. Do not make the mistake of assuming that these reproductions are easy to spot. Some are not, especially when there is not satisfactory light.

Light is critical. Oil paintings should be examined in natural sunlight whenever possible. Artificial light, especially fluorescent light, distorts color and hides damage, repainting, etc. Rake light over the surface and move the painting around so that you view it at odd angles. When viewing a painting on the wall or looking downward as you hold it in your hands, your eyes correct defects and faults. Your eyes and mind create the image you expect to see, not necessarily the image you actually are seeing. When viewed from an odd angle, your eyes and mind are not able to correct defects.

Often the back, side, or inside of an object reveals more than the front. If the painting is on a stretcher, examine it carefully. Look at the color of the wood. Does it look new? If it does, it is. Does the wood have the proper patina and mellowness? New frames are often painted or varnished, often with dust and dirt added to the mix, to simulate age. The aged finish on an old stretcher will feel smooth and have a dark, almost brown/black, surface color. Check the keys. If wood, their tone should match that of the stretcher. If metal, look for a copyright date and signs of oxidation. There should be a layer of dust on the top of the bottom stretcher that is oily to the touch. The bottom of the top stretcher should be dirt free.

If the painting is on board, the board should show signs of warping or cracking. A back surface exhibiting shallow planing grooves indicates an 18th- or early 19th-century board. The flat bottom plane did not arrive until the early 19th century.

How is the canvas attached to the stretcher? Staples are a bad sign. However, there are exceptions. Recently, I inspected an oil painting that had been professionally restored. It was reattached to the stretcher using staples. “Staples indicate reproduction” is a good general rule, but not the only rule used to spot a reproduction.

harry-rinker2If the canvas is pure white, the painting is new. Dirt, grim and the other particles and chemicals in the air age a canvas. Rapid humidity and temperature changes, especially when oil paintings are stored in attics, basements, garages, and other storage areas without heat or air conditioning, also create brittleness in a painting’s canvas, surface cracking, etc. Repairs (good, bad or indifferent) and/or relining often indicate age.

When approaching an oil painting—in fact any object—I do a quick assessment and assign it to one of several specific categories. Period piece, reproduction, copycat, fantasy item or fake (my most-used choice). This is a risky procedure. Mistakes can, and do, happen. However, if you treat every object equally, you will become overwhelmed with time-consuming research. The antiques and collectibles business is a place where you have to learn to trust your gut.

I use a different set of classifications when doing my initial sort for oil paintings. I assign each painting to one of six groups: works by (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), and (6) professionally trained artists. At first glance this list appears to rank artists by skill. Do not be deceived. Professionally trained artists have bad days, albeit few collectors admit it. Professional artists produce crap just as readily as the members in the other groups.

A 1950s-era paint-by-numbers painting. There are those who collect paint-by-numbers, but it is done by only a dedicated few.

A 1950s-era paint-by-numbers painting. There are those who collect paint-by-numbers, but it is done by only a dedicated few.

A current paint-by-numbers kit, which can be purchased at any art supply store, drug store or the nearest Wal-Mat or Target.

A current paint-by-numbers kit, which can be purchased at any art supply store, drug store or the nearest Wal-Mat or Target.

Paint by numbers was a major craze in the mid to late 1950s. Paint-by-number kits still are sold today. Surprise, surprise! Paint-by-number art collectors exist. Some pieces can sell for more than $100. Check eBay to learn the most desirable subjects.

Starving/hack artists are assembly line painters. A single artist may paint an entire work or contribute a portion based on his specialty, e.g., sky, trees, etc. The artist signatures, usually one name, are fake, many of them spelling variations of famous artists. Several times a year your local newspaper carries an advertisement for a large quantity of such paintings available for sale at a local motel. Historically, these paintings were sold at art galleries in vacation/tourist locations, gas stations, or stands along the highway. The scenes are pretty, colorful, and wistful. They are decoration, not art.

Department/Furniture store art is mass-produced as well, albeit in smaller quantities. It is “couch art,” a decorative painting designed to hang behind a couch, over a dining room buffet, or on a large wall that needs something to fill it. Many of these paintings are accompanied by elaborate author biographies. Alas, a record of how the artist’s paintings do on the secondary market is missing information. These paintings are based on traditional styles and are sold at exorbitant prices. When no longer treasured, they are garage sale and flea market fodder.

There is no end to the number of self-taught amateur artists. Fortunately, most of their art is kept within the family or given to friends. These painting will never hang in a museum, the exception being those that are so bad that they fit the classification of outsider art. Do not confuse these painting with folk art. It is bad art. When encountering an example, ask yourself, “Would I hang this in my house?” If the answer is no, walk away.

Bank or restaurant art is a convenient classification for paintings by local artists with some formal training, many of whom are local art teachers or members of an artist community/colony. Some are good. Some are very good. Some are downright lousy. Most of these artists have an inflated view of the value of their works, especially those who exhibit at craft fairs. Many have a small, but dedicated group of admirers. Their value is further enhanced by support from local decorators. Few of these artists have an established secondary market. Paintings tend to remain with the first owner until he dies. When the paintings do come on the secondary market, the vast majority sell for less than they cost new.

This stated, one of the hot art collecting areas is regional and local art from the 1870s through the 1960s. Secondary market prices can easily reach the thousands. The key is to identify those artists that do and do not have an established secondary market. Understand that removed from the local/regional market, value vanishes.

The second part of this article will comment on the work of professionally trained artists, provide tips on researching paintings and identify some of the key secondary markets for selling oil paintings.


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 http://www.gcnlive.com 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

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