Who Is the Artist Who Signed This Painting?

Is Your Thrift Store Art Valuable?

Art dealers examining painting in art gallery
You never know what potential gems your local thrift store holds for you. Hero Images / Getty Images

Many people wonder if a painting they find at a yard sale or thrift shop may be valuable. There are also many instances of people finding forgotten pieces of art collecting dust in an attic. Whether it's artwork that's been hanging in the family living room for decades or a new find at a bargain price, what you really want to know is who the artist is.

The problem is that it's often hard to tell who created a piece of art.

Countless artists—both famous and undiscovered—have been creating paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs for centuries. You may have found a rare gem that's been considered "junk" for decades or just another good painting that some talented artist created. Either way, finding out about the artist and the value of the art itself is not going to be easy.

Forgotten Masterpieces Are Rare

First of all, to be absolutely clear, finding a forgotten masterpiece is extremely rare. You will hear stories about a piece by Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh, or Alexander Calder being found at thrift stores. If you're a fan of PBS's "Antiques Roadshow," you also know that some forgotten family treasures can be worth some surprising amounts of cash. These are not the norm.

That is not to say that you shouldn't keep an eye out for that hidden gem. It's really fun to explore bargains and see if you can find one, but don't count on every dusty painting being valuable.

Is It an Original?

One of the first things you can do when you're curious about a piece of art is to examine it. You want to do your best to determine if it is an original work or a reproduction.

Paintings and drawings are rather easy. Look for real brush strokes, pencil sketches underneath the paint, or, for charcoal and pastels, signs that the medium is actually drawn on the surface of the paper.

For this type of art, the reproductions will be flat and look like they came out of a high-quality printer, not created by hand.

Some types of artwork naturally fall into the categories of fine-art printing. This includes techniques such as etchings and linocuts and the method of producing each piece creates an actual print. The same applies to fine art photographs. Since the artist must make a print, these are more difficult to distinguish from reproductions.

Many times, artists working in these mediums will offer their prints in a limited edition series. You might see an inscription that says "5/100," meaning you have the fifth print of a limited edition of 100 pieces. The problem here is trying to distinguish a forgery or unauthorized printing from one created by the artist. Quite often, you need to compare an artist's signature and the paper it's printed on to know if the work is legit and professional expertise is required.

Do Some Research Online

Your next step is to do some research. There are a number of resources that you can scour that may lead you to an answer. However, do be aware that the likelihood of finding anything is pretty low. It's worth a try, though, and you'll just have to keep digging until you feel you've exhausted the search.

A good place to begin is with Google's image search. Take a photograph of the artwork in question and load it into the search bar to see if you get a match. You can also take a close-up of the artist's signature and see if you get any results for that. 

This search feature will scour the internet and try to find similar images. You can then navigate to websites that may have more information, which may give you a few clues to continue your search.

Ask a Professional

In most cases, you will need some expert advice. Keep in mind that your artist friend or any professional artist, framer, writer, etc. may not be able to help you. They may be able to spot an original piece of art or guide you through the medium, technique, style, or time period, but most artists are not skilled in the research that this requires.

Don't be disappointed if they can't help you and understand that some get asked about this all the time.

To find out more about a piece of art, you really do need the expertise of an art dealer from an auction house. You want someone familiar with the famous artists certainly but, more importantly, with the regional names, the minor successes, and the neglected and forgotten artists of the world.

Art history specialists, antique dealers, and those working at art auction houses have spent years studying these types of objects. These professionals also tend to carry insurance that protects against erroneous attributions, which can be good for you if anything of value is found.

Start with your local auction house or contact a dealer that specializes in art and work your way around from there. You shouldn't have to pay for a basic evaluation, and you shouldn't feel like you need to get only one opinion. Equally, don't expect vast amounts of time and expertise for free; people have a living to make.

Enjoy the Art

In short, it will take time and effort to figure out if that two dollar painting from the garage sale is worth anything. You really won't know unless you check. 

However, even if it is not necessarily valuable and you appreciate it, there's no need to worry about the money. Hang it on the wall and enjoy it. All art, no matter how famous the artist, was created for that exact purpose and there are many talented artists out there whose work deserves to be dusted off and displayed.