The Art Appraisal Secrets of Trained Specialists

Craquelure, brushstrokes, stamps, watermarks, and other tell-tale signs of genuine, timeless masterpieces. Here’s what art appraisal experts are looking for in Old Master paintings, Chinese paintings, Modern British Art, Prints and Multiples, as well as Post-war and contemporary art pieces.

How to Appraise Art: Old Master Paintings

An artist’s signature became prevalent during the early Renaissance in the 15th century. It was during this momentous era that artists began infusing their unique creativity and autonomy from guild systems. Painters, potters, sculptors, and other artisans added their names or monograms to their work. 

A signature or watermark does more than confirming the authorship of an art piece. An appraiser can compare the style of the signature to those in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, which can help determine an artwork’s date of creation based on the signature’s evolution over time.

However, it is not always straightforward. Some artists would often sign art pieces that met their standards of quality, even when their apprentices were the ones who produced the work. Furthermore, some followers and apprentices of artists forged the signatures of established masters. Centuries later, people looking to make a profit would fake signatures on genuine and inauthentic pieces. 

“It’s important to make sure that the signature is in keeping with the artist’s known way of signing, and that it sits correctly with the original paint — not on top of the craquelure,” stressed Maja Markovic, Head of Day Sale in the Old Master Paintings department at Christie’s. “These factors can drastically alter a work’s value.”

Chinese Paintings

Over the last 1,500 years of Chinese painting and calligraphy, replicating the work and signatures of past masters has become a cornerstone of an artist’s development. The consequence is that dating and authenticating Chinese paintings is more difficult. Not only does the task demand a keen eye, but it also requires extensive knowledge in prominent Asian artists of the past and present.

There are several clues available to a trained appraisal specialist. “For most artists, the habitual movement of the brush when writing calligraphy or a signature becomes a rapid, automatic motion,” says. Dr. Malcolm McNeill, a specialist in Christie’s Chinese Paintings department. “Copyists are inevitably slower and less confident, and you can see when their brush halts.” An artist’s seal is likewise complex. “Every seal has small nicks and indentations visible under close examination. Reproducing these perfectly is near impossible,” explains McNeill.

Biltmore Loan and Jewelry’s art appraisal specialists in Phoenix, AZ are trained to recognize the tell-tale signs of valuable paintings from all over the world, which is a fundamental skill when evaluating a Chinese painting.

Early European Sculptures

“When assessing a sculpture, I turn it upside down and examine the area that the artist didn’t mean to be seen. This helps me tell how, when, and where it was made,” reveals Milo Dickinson, Head of the Early European Sculpture and Works of Art department at Christie’s.

If a sculpture is brown, for example, a skilled art appraiser will look for a cavity, which could mean it was cast using the early lost-wax process or cire-perdue. The fifteenth-century bronze sculptures made in this method are bulkier than eighteenth-century pieces. Artists have since refined and improved the casting process.

Another critical step when appraising Early European sculptures is to inspect for less- oxidized areas, and therefore, without a patina. This clue makes it easier to determine the metal’s alloy and identify the art work’s origin.

Prints and Multiples

As seen in art-inspired films, holding up a print to the light can determine important features, including the type of paper. In Europe, many fifteenth-century artists used “laid paper” made from fine linen pulp. Art appraisers recognize its distinct vertical and horizontal lines, which are a result of the wire sieves used to press each piece of paper.

Artists introduced the use of “wove paper” after the 1750s. Wood pulp is the material used to make each sheet. It has a denser and more consistent texture, similar to the type of paper we use today. According to Alexandra Gill, Senior Specialist in Christie’s Prints & Multiples department, “If the paper does not seem right for the period of the work, alarm bells ring.”

Modern British Art

The condition is sometimes key to appraising a painting. “If the painting is on canvas, I check to see if it has been lined — meaning that a secondary canvas has been attached to the original to provide additional support and stability. If it has, I want to know why,” shares Pippa Jacomb, director of the Modern British and Irish Art department at Christie’s.

For instance, in twentieth-century British pictures, the lining is relatively unusual because they are quite new. If a clear lining is present, however, it could be for different reasons, including to support restored paint and repaired cracks; or to strengthen a damaged canvas.

The next step is to check the artwork’s condition under ultraviolet light. “More recently applied pigments on the canvas will fluoresce, glowing purple, highlighting areas of restoration and retouching not visible to the naked eye or under natural light,” Jacomb explains.

More and more art collectors are becoming sensitive to the condition of a painting, print, and other masterpieces. “They want to know as much as possible about a painting’s history and any work undertaken on it,” says the specialist. Having in-depth knowledge about a specific artwork plays an important role in maintaining or raising its long-term value.

Post-war and Contemporary Art

Specialists in appraising paintings are always curious to see the backside portion since there could be authentic stamps, labels, stencils, and notes. These hidden details provide significant clues about the painting’s origin and exhibition history.

In most cases, these special labels come from museums and buyers who have sold the work. Sometimes, private art collectors have their individual stamps as well. An experienced appraiser cross-checks these markers to trace a painting’s provenance and verify its authenticity.

With a bit of luck, some paintings, sculptures, and other masterpieces can display signs of authenticity. However, they are not always 100 percent reliable. Identifying an authentic art piece still requires a specialist’s trained eye. If you need help determining the origin and value of a painting or sculpture, contact us online or visit our locations to request a free market appraisal. We also offer competitive rates if you are looking to sell authentic artwork.