The Agony and Ecstasy of Owning a ‘Priceless’ Painting

For $3, I became the proud owner of a Rembrandt! I was sure of it—proving even experts can get caught up in the emotion of a great find.

Several years ago, I purchased a beautiful painting at a garage sale for $3. The scene seemed very familiar, but I didn’t linger on my analysis of it the piece. I loved it, paid for my purchases and went on to the next sale.

Later that day, I brought my newly acquired painting into the house, sat down and gave it a quick once over. The painting is unsigned, so I pulled out all of my art-related books to see if I could find the artist who painted the piece—to no avail.

Three months ago, while scanning through my online home page, lo and behold, my painting popped up on the page. Oh my gosh, I have a Rembrandt!

I am one of the few lucky people who found a real treasure at a bargain price. In my head I was already spending the millions of dollars I would get once I sold the piece at auction. I called my father and husband. “We are going to be rich,” I said and proceeded to tell them the story behind my amazing find.

I was literally trembling as I gently took the painting down from the office wall to really scrutinize the piece. The painting is of Rembrandt and Saskia, Rembrandt’s wife, in the scene “The Prodigal Son in the Tavern,” circa 1635.

My painting is oil on canvas, just like the original, and it is about the correct size based on the information in my resource book. There are appropriate signs of wear to the front, and it looks to me like someone put new stretcher bars on it. It has contemporary staples holding the canvas in place.

Mine is not signed “F. Rembrandt” like the original, but I was justifying all of this to myself and I can be pretty convincing when I want to be.

The brain is a powerful instrument. The story I wove around my painting is that Rembrandt had to have painted more than one of this particular scene as a practice run. The one I held in my hands was the true original and that is why it was not signed. It has been rolled up and hidden away in a cedar chest for centuries just waiting for me to come along and purchase it.

Well, the proverbial bubble eventually burst. I sent photos to a noted auction house to have it evaluated and assured them that I would let them sell it for me and we would all become very wealthy. The conclusion was that I own a very well-executed copy of undetermined age, but most likely it was painted in the 20th century. The auction value for my painting is around $200.

So, why am I sharing this story with you? To illustrate the fact that no matter how knowledgeable you are in antiques and collectibles, it is very easy to get caught up in the moment and have all common sense go out the window.

Works of art are very easily reproduced. There are companies in operation today that have staff artists who do nothing but copy the works of the masters for resale and most bear no notation that they are reproductions. This is not a new industry, and it is often difficult to differentiate the real deal from the reproduction.

You also need to keep in mind that many art museums sell reproductions of original works held in the museum. These pieces are often notated in some fashion to indicate they are reproductions of original works.

With today’s sophisticated printers one can even scan a painting and print it in such a manner that it looks like an actual painting. This is called a “giclee.”

Home artists—those hobbyists who love to paint—turn out quality works. This piece came from my own mother. Her works aren’t worth much to collectors, but to me they’re priceless.

Even if you have an artist-signed painting, etching, engraving or drawing, it does not necessarily mean that you have a valuable work of art. Have you heard of a “starving artist” sale? This type of art sale became popular in the 1970s. They are generally held in hotels or convention centers across the country and advertised as the opportunity to own an authentic work of art at a discounted price. The paintings are usually signed with only a first name or illegible signature and a two-digit date such as “72” for 1972.

The pieces sold at this type of sale are mass produced by artists for the wholesale company putting on the sale. Typical scenes you’ll find are oceanscapes with crashing waves, lighthouses, street scenes and still-life paintings.

The value of the paintings on the secondary market depends largely on the subject matter, quality of the piece and the frame, but most sell for less than $50.

Recently I have had an onslaught of appraisals for “paintings” with a label or stamp on the back that says “Intercraft Industries” or “Academy Arts.” From a distance, they look like original works, but when you get close and examine the piece, you notice that it is a print on cardboard with texture added to give the illusion of an oil painting.

The added texture was very appealing to the consumer versus a flat print or lithograph. I have seen some actual acrylic-and-oil paintings on canvas with the same label.

Intercraft Industries was founded in the 1950s or 1960s to bring affordable art to the masses. From what I could find through my research, the company ceased operation in the early 1980s.

There are also paintings created by the home artist; someone like my mom who loved to paint. She painted with Bob Ross, the happy PBS artist, every day for years. Most of her paintings and drawings are of exceptional quality; she was courted by several gallery owners and offered her own showings—all of which she turned down because she felt her pieces were not up to par. To me they are priceless.

If you have a painting, drawing or similar piece of art you think might be of some importance or value, I highly recommend having it examined by someone in person. A local art gallery or art museum can most likely direct you to someone who can analyze the piece and give you some information.

And as a side note, please consider this: When it comes to works of art, if you are on a budget, purchase pieces you love and support your local art community. You never know if an artist might ascend to the ranks of someone who is known and admired on a national or worldwide level.

Michelle Staley, who insists that collectors are the happiest people, is an antique collector and dealer. Her shop, My Granny’s Attic Antiques, Collectibles and Memorabilia, is in Lenexa, Kansas.

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