A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Art Research for Beginners

It's not that hard to be your own art detective.

So you find a painting in the attic, or inherit one, or fall prey to the charms of a sculpture at a charity shop. How do you know if it's valuable, and to whom it might be valuable? Or suppose you feel an empathetic tie to the artist or the era of your treasure? How do you find out more?

I love this kind of research. Most of my work is finding needles in haystacks for the art trade: auction houses, private galleries and collectors.

I also do research for scholars who need articles in professional journals and other arcane writings only found in a few big-city art research libraries. But I'm also happy to work with individuals.

Here are some painless rudimentary steps everyone can take:

  • 1. Take multiple photos of the piece; they will prove valuable during your search. They will also provide evidence of its condition in case of damage. You might want to take some actual old-school film photos and store them safely.

    2. Measure it, weigh it and be specific about recording your measurements. You'll need to refer to them later.

    3. Write down what the piece is made of.

    4. How was it made (carved, etched, cast, etc.)?

    5. What is the piece's title and what is its subject?

    6. Is there is signature or are there initials on the piece?

    7. Look for numbers, marks, inscriptions and damage (either repaired or not) on all sides of the piece.

    8. Find any dates.

    9. Locate any stamps (these are often on the back of a painting).

    10. Boil down all of this information to its essentials. Write a bare-bones description of it that you can refer to when you're on the phone with someone who's helping you, or take with you when you do research.

    11. If you have the name of the artist, and want a quick, sketchy introduction to her work, try Artcyclopedia. But remember that careful research doesn't rely on only one source.

    Next: Step away from the computer.

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    From your Guide: Nadine Granoff, professional art researcher, locates artistic needles in prestigious Haystacks otherwise known as the Library of Congress, Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. She's been happily doing so for the past ten years. She may be reached at her email address.

    The main branch of your local library probably has the requisite reference books and art-savvy librarians to help you figure out the salient facts. They can also refer you to appraisers and other art experts who can help you with advanced questions. An alternative is your local museum's library, but be aware that many don't welcome the general public.

    To get a walking-tour of this kind of research dip into: Etta Arntsen's (Chicago: 1978) or Lois Swan Jones's Art Information: Research Methods and Resources (Phoenix: 1999).

    The central branch of my city's library (Washington, D.C.'s Martin Luther King branch) has a fine art reference collection. It is also open evenings and weekends, unlike many museum libraries. "We help the customer to identify the artist, determine auction history, and make appropriate referrals," says George McKinley Martin, head of the D.C. Library's Art Division. "To identify artists we use sources as follows: Benezeit's Dictionaire des Peintures, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs; Thieme-Becker's Kunstler-Lexicon; Mallett's Index of Artists; Havlice's Index to Artistic Biography: Contemporary Artists and Cederholm's Afro-American Artists: A Bio-bibliographic Directory."

    Some other key sources at the library are:

    Signature and Monogram Directories

    • Castagno, John. . (Metuchen, N.J.: 1990).

      Castagno, John. . (Metuchen, N.J.: 1990).

      It's ill-advised to rely on the signature guides alone, though they are a good preliminary step. A signature or monogram that matches the one on your piece doesn't guarantee the work is real. Like the rest of us, artists' signatures evolve over time. Forgers also go to the library and find signatures.

      Dictionaries and Biographical Directories

      • (New York: 1994).

        Encyclopedia of World Art (15 vols.) (New York: 1968).

        Falk, Peter H. (3 vols.) (Madison, CT: 1999).

        Graves, Algernon. The Royal Academy of Arts: A Complete Dictionary (4 vols.) (London: 1970).

        Huyghe, Rene. Larousse Encyclopedia of Modern Art from 1800 to the Present Day (London: 1965).

        Index to Artistic Biography (Metuchen, NJ: 1981).

        Johnson, J. and Greutyner, H. (London: 1955).

        Petteys, Chris. (New York: 1985).

        250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: 1981).

        Waters, Grant M. Dictionary of British Artists Working 1900-1950 (2 vols.) (Eastborne: 1975).

        (New Providence, N.J.: annual publication).

        Price Guides

        Everyone wants to know how much their treasure is worth in money. The owner undertaking research may already know what it's worth to them sentimentally, spiritually and aesthetically. You'll never truly know how much it will fetch on the open market until you try to sell it. So much depends on its condition, where you sell it, styles, and lots of other variables you can't control. But you can get a rough notion of the piece's worth by comparing it with comparable past sales. The main branch of your library may have some of these standards, which come out each year:

        • Hislop, Duncan (ed.). (Surrey, England).

          Monod, Thedore (ed.). (New York).

          Theran, Susan (ed.). Leonard's Annual Price Index of Art Auctions (Newton, MA).

        Some sources particularly relevant for European and British art are:

        • Frederickson, B.B. (ed.). Index of Paintings Sold in the British Isles During the Nineteenth Century: 1801-1805 (3 vols.) (Oxford, 1988).

          G. Redford, Art Sales: A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art (2 vols.) (London, 1888).

          Graves, Algernon. Art Sales from Early in the Eighteenth Century to Early in the Twentieth Century (3 vols.) (London, 1918).

        Next: What if the evidence is conflicting or ambiguous?

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        From your Guide: Nadine Granoff, professional art researcher, locates artistic needles in prestigious Haystacks otherwise known as the Library of Congress, Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. She's been happily doing so for the past ten years. She may be reached at her email address.

        Suppose the piece is unsigned and you have no idea who might have created it? An art librarian at your public library or local museum can give you some educated guesses.

        If you want to learn more by yourself, these are some standard books on art history that are worth plowing through:

        Craske, Matthew. (Oxford University Press).

        Holt, Elizabeth B.G. A Documentary History of Art (3 vols.) (Yale University Press).

        Janson, H. W., and Rosenblum, Robert. (Thames and Hudson).

        Brettell, Richard. (Oxford University Press).

          You'll learn something different and more visceral, however, by going to museums and finding out first-hand what your treasure resembles and how others similar to it look up-close.

           

          Expert opinions.

           

          You'll also learn a great deal by working with an expert (for instance, an appraiser), and finding out which criteria they use to evaluate a piece of art. The standard rate in my town, Washington, D.C., is $250 (US). If you intend to insure your artwork, you must get an appraisal from a certified appraiser. Get the evaluation in writing. Be aware that no appraiser in the United States will guarantee his or her appraisals.

          How to find a professional appraiser in the United States.

          The American Association of Appraisers and The American Society of Appraisers are both organizations with websites you can search for a certified fine arts appraiser near you.

          is available at most public libraries. It lists auctioneers, appraisers, conservators, and others who can help you figure out more about your piece.

            How to find a valuer in the U.K.

            Go to the website of the Royal Institute of Surveyors. In the banner is the heading "Property". Click under that word and a list will pop up.

            Then click on "Arts and Antiques".

            Try searching the websites of the London-based Association of Art and Antique Dealers or the International Association of Appraisers.

              Free assessments, but not full-scale appraisals.

              • Your local art auctioneer might have a free appraisal day. My neighborhood auctioneer, Sloan and Kenyon, does this on Tuesdays from 11 AM to 2 PM (Eastern).

                 

                Doyle's, an established auctioneer in New York City, has traveling appraisal days around the U.S., by appointment. Doyle's sells furniture, lamps, vases, pianos, etc., in addition to fine art. They also have free seminars in New York on how to buy at an auction.

                But be wary of putting all your trust in an appraisal by someone who has an interest in buying or selling the work.

                Though museums in the United States no longer do so, some museums in the United Kingdom still have "evaluation days" when you can make an appointment to bring in your artwork for the free assessment of a curator. One such museum is the Victoria and Albert in London.

                If your treasure is picked for inclusion in the column "Queries" in Art and Antiques Magazine, an expert will give you (and the general public) their take on it for free. You must send them two color photos in addition to any data you have on it, and mail your request to:

                "Queries"
                Art & Antiques
                2100 Powers Ferry Road
                Atlanta GA 30339

                  Next: Find out if it has a tainted past.

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                  From your Guide: Nadine Granoff, professional art researcher, locates artistic needles in prestigious Haystacks otherwise known as the Library of Congress, Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. She's been happily doing so for the past ten years. She may be reached at her email address.

                  On Criminal Misdeeds

                  Works of art are easily taken, concealed and sold. It's not safe to assume that your's is completely pure. The Art Loss Register will conduct a search (for a charge) to determine if your treasure might have something sordid in its past. ArtLoss have offices in New York, Berlin, and London, and their services are inexpensive.

                  Their website provides a wealth of information about the various forms of art larceny.

                  The primary means of identification of stolen art is simply looking at auction catalogues, which accounts for fifty-one percent of such identifications. Paintings are the items most often recovered. According to Art Loss Register, only one percent of the loot recovered is sculpture. The vast majority (fifty-four percent) of art thefts come from private homes, while museums account for twelve percent, and galleries another twelve percent.

                  World War II-era questions

                  If your work of art is European, and was created or traded hands during the early 1930s to the late 1940s, you would be wise to check one of the databases devoted to art from that era. Try the Nazi-era Provenance website, which encompasses mainly paintings from most museums in the United States. The Museum of Modern Art's Provenance website concentrates on modern and some post-modern fine art.

                  In England there are multiple sources of information on Nazi-era art.

                  The War Office records at the British Library is a good resource. The National Art Library holds material of the British Committee on the Preservation and Restitution of Works of Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and at National Archives in Surrey, you'll find records of the Control Commission for Germany, British Element.

                  There's a large (and burgeoning) body of literature on the special problems of Nazi-era art; here are three of the best introductory books:

                  • Akinsha, Konstantin. (New York: 1995).

                    Feliciano, Hector. (New York: 1977).

                    Nicholas, Lynn H. (New York: 1994).

                  Next: More hunting and gathering on the web.

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                  From your Guide: Nadine Granoff, professional art researcher, locates artistic needles in prestigious Haystacks otherwise known as the Library of Congress, Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. She's been happily doing so for the past ten years. She may be reached at her email address.

                  Auction Results

                  • For a fee, ArtPrice will provide the latest auction results, as well as nifty charts on the prices an artist has fetched, his or her monograms and signatures, and news on upcoming auctions with works by specific artists. ArtPrice is based in Paris and emphasizes European and American art, heavy on the nineteenth and twentieth century.

                    Another service, which claims to base its opinions on auction results from the past five years and adjust for inflation, is Telepraisal.

                    • Telepraisal
                      P.O. Box 20686
                      New York, NY 10009
                      (800) 645-6002

                    The International Fine Prints Association website will let you search for print dealers in your area. It also has a detailed guide to prints and printmaking for the beginning collector entitled "What is a print?"

                    Wondering how to clean that Koekkoek?

                    Major Auction Houses

                    • The major auction houses will be happy to look at photos of your treasure and let you know what they think of it. Or you can make an appointment at Christie's or Sotheby's and show it to them in person.

                      Note: Some auctioneers charge a fee for their evaluation.

                      In Britain, you might also try Bonham's, particularly for Asian art. Their California branch, Butterfield's, also has an expertise in Asian art.

                      For prints, drawings, photos, maps and posters the specialists are Swann's.

                      New York-based Phillips de Pury is known for its expertise in contemporary art, furniture and furnishings. They also have offices in Geneva, Berlin, and Munich.

                      The Art Dealers Association of America's website has a publication called "Collector's Guide." They offer seminars in New York on collecting. You can also search for art dealers who perform appraisals through their website, though most of their members are in Manhattan.

                      The Fine Art Dealer's Association is broader geographically than the ADAA, and you can also use its website to locate members who will appraise.

                      They sponsor exhibits. Their website also has handy publications on buying and selling art, and art appraisals.

                      One final word

                      If you plan to ship your Simone Martini abroad for an appraisal, you should insure it. Some of the best known insurers are AXA and Huntington Block in the U.S. (800-424-8830). Block is affiliated with AON, based in Germany.

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                      From your Guide: Nadine Granoff, professional art researcher, locates artistic needles in prestigious Haystacks otherwise known as the Library of Congress, Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. She's been happily doing so for the past ten years. She may be reached at her email address.