• By Fred Durnbaugh
  • 02 Nov, 2017


Vincent Van Gough
Identifying Quality art

One of the BIGGEST problems Auctioneers and Liquidators encounter is that unless you specialize, you seldom utilize the right terminology when describing art. Without the correct terminology, consumers have little confidence that you will be able to adequately identify and describe their consignments or estate items. This is particularly true with art. Nothing will show a prospective client that you lack the skills to identify and describe artwork faster than calling everything a print or a painting. Here are a few quick tricks…

Painting – A painting is usually 3 dimensional. You can FEEL the brush strokes and the give and flow of the art. USUALLY , a painting is framed but not under glass, so if framed correctly it will have a frame, but no glass. I have seen custom framed oil paintings, but it is not very common. Signatures are usually original, but does not guarantee value.

Print – In general, think of a print like a low-grade poster. Does it look mass produced? Does it have an inexpensive frame? No mat? Staples? These are indications of a print. Make no mistake – there are thousands of vintage prints. Just because it looks old does not make it valuable. Any signature evident would have been on the original piece of art and the signature will not be original. It is part of the print.

Print on canvas – This is a DIGITAL print on a canvas back. Again, it is mass produced but it does not look like a print. It looks like a painting but the texture is flat and you cannot FEEL the paint brush strokes. In the 1990s there was a craze where artwork was digitally printed on canvas and then actual augmented or highlighted with hand brushed paint. It would not fool anyone – it is still flat and lifeless. Today, they would not even bother to do that. Digitally printed canvas art is available anywhere home goods are sold.

Lithograph – Think of a lithograph like a high-end poster with extraordinary attention to detail and multiple layers. Quality lithographs will go through the print press numerous times (as often as 100 times) each with its own layer and color specifics. An artist who has commissioned a lithograph may work with a lithographer for weeks or months to get the coloring, the hue, the saturation and any number of other attributes just right before (s)he gives authority for final printing. Even at that point, the artist may print up to 50 Artist Proof copies (5-10 is usual) before starting the actual lithograph printing. Usually there is a finite limited number and the signatures are original. Lower numbers are almost always better because the images will be more striking and the colors more vibrant at the beginning. That is why if you have number 15 out of 1000, it is best to mention a “low number”. There are collectors who will ONLY collect numbers less than 25 on lithographs. If a lithograph is marked “A/P” that stands for “Artist Proof” and that adds a premium to some pieces. Artists can also arrange and pay to produce their own lithographs. A lithograph by an unknown and yet undiscovered artist will have little value until they come into their own right artistically or until the art community recognizes their body of work.

Serigraph – Think silk screen. A serigraph is similar to a lithograph except that chemicals are used to identify where the ink needs to be placed. A lithograph uses outlines or a template. Think of a tee shirt printing system where only certain dyes and ink are let through to the shirt in order to make the image on the tee shirt. This is basically the same concept but more elaborate and less common.

Etching – Think “acid carving”. It is the process of using strong acid to cut into the unprotected parts of a metal surface to create a design in intaglio (incised) in the metal. In modern manufacturing, other chemicals may be used on other types of material.

Steel Engraving – A print made by first carving very carefully onto a steel plate and then printing the image. Usually black and white. Very popular in late 19th century. Often steel engravings were printed into books which advertised steel engravings. In the mid-20th century resellers figured out that the engravings sold better if they removed them from the books and framed them. So now books that contain such engravings and have not been cannibalized have additional value when found. Many engravings were hand tinted.

Block Print – Art created by first carving an image into a piece of wood (usually in reverse) and then either inking the block to create an impression on paper or parchment. Sometimes hand detailed after print made. Many Asian art pieces are done in this manner. This was particularly popular in Germany in the late 1960s so you may see images of buildings and cities in Europe.

Pen & Ink – Just what you think. A piece of art done laboriously by hand with pen and shaded ink. There was a craze in the late 1970s with a series of Victorian looking buildings and houses with usually pink frames under glass.

Charcoal – Again -Just what you think. A piece of art done with a charcoal pencil. Usually under glass because they are easy to smear and hard to maintain.

Signatures –  Just because a piece of art has a signature does not, in itself, add value. Lots of starving artist (and there are LOTS of them!), sign their work. Some have even scraped together enough to make limited edition lithographs. Others are street artists. To be truly valuable, most artists have to be “listed”, which just means that the art world recognizes their abilities, they have been collected by some museums and possibly noted as significant in some way. Usually it also means that there has been some auction “resales” that have begun to justify and increase their prices drawing attention. Signatures are usually found in bottom right corner, but not always. A good rule of thumb on signatures – if the signature is ABOVE the artwork, it usually will require more scrutiny. If it is BELOW the surface of the art or looks printed – it usually is a print.

This list of art terms is not complete. There are hundreds of other terms and types of art that you may encounter, but these are the few you will run into often. Art is one of the two or three areas (the other two, in my opinion, are jewelry and Asian ceramics) where you can really make a mistake and overlook a very valuable piece. It is always best to consult a professional like Maple Leaf Appraisals in Dallas TX if you have a question. Knowledge is power but with power comes responsibility. You always must keep your fiduciary responsibility to your consignor or estate in mind first and foremost. If you do that and ask for help when you need it – you will be just fine.

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