Rinker's Opinion - Authenticating Oil Paintings

Previous Ruby Lane Authenticating Antiques and Collectibles subject collecting category blogs focused on ceramics, glass, furniture, and metals. This blog discusses oil paintings. One more “subject” authenticating blog remains—paper. The authenticating series concludes with a blog entitled “Antiques and Collectibles Detectives Kit.”

[Author’s Aside #1: “Rinker on Collectibles,” my weekly syndicated column featured a two part series, Columns #1172 and #1174, on authenticating oil paintings. Much of what follows is extracted from these columns. The full columns are available on www.rubylane.com.]

This blog deals only with oil paintings. Various types of prints, for example, etchings and lithographs, watercolors, and artwork in other mediums, are not covered. While some points raised apply to these artworks, others do not.

When someone mentions oil painting, the tendency is to think “oil on canvas.” Canvas is just on surface medium. Oil paintings are found on artist board, ceramics, glass, paper, slate, and wood, just to name a few surfaces.

Light is critical. Oil paintings, as with all objects, should be examined in natural sunlight whenever possible. Artificial light, especially fluorescent light, distorts color and hides damage, in painting, and repainting. Rake light across the surface of the painting, ideally bouncing the light off the surface at a 45 degree angle. Move the painting around so that it is viewed at odd angles. When viewing a painting on the wall or looking downward as you hold it in your hands, your eyes correct defects and faults. Your eyes and mind create the image you expect to see, not necessary the image you are seeing. When viewed from an odd angle, your eyes and mind are not able to correct defects.

Black (UV) lights belong in the hands of experts. In the hands of someone unfamiliar with their use, they deceive more than inform. The room has to be pitch black to use a black light effectively. The correct wavelength (long vs. short) must be selected. While older repairs can be spotted, many of the modern chemicals and paints used to conserve or restore paintings do not fluoresce. A black light is a confirming rather than an initial discover device.

Often the back, side, or inside of an object reveals more than the front. When a painting is on a stretcher, examine the stretcher carefully. Look at the color of the wood. Does it look new? If it does, it is. Does the wood have the proper patina and mellowness? New frames are often painted or varnished, often with dust and dirt added to the mix, to simulate age. The aged finish of an old stretcher will feel smooth and have a dark, almost brown/black surface color. Check the stretcher keys. If wood, their tone should match that of the stretcher. If metal, look for a copyright date and signs of oxidation. There should be a layer of dust on the top of the bottom stetcher that is oily to the touch. The bottom of the top stretcher should be dust free.

How is the canvas attached to the stretcher? Staples are a bad sign. However, there are exceptions. Recently, I inspected an oil painting that had been professionally relined and conserved. It was reattached to the stretcher using staples. “Staples indicate reproduction” is a good general rule, but not the only rule to spot a reproduction.

If the canvas is pure white, the painting is new. Dirt, grim, and other particles and chemical in the air age a canvas. Rapid humidity and temperature changes, especially when oil paintings are stored in attics, basements, garages, and other storage areas without heat or air conditioning, also create brittleness in a painting’s canvas, surface cracking, and other telltale signs. Repairs (good, bad, or indifferent) and/or relining often indicate age.

When authenticating an oil painting, in fact any object, I do a quick assessment and assign it to one of several categories—period, reproduction, copycat, fantasy item, or fake (my most-used choice.) This is a risky procedure. Mistakes can and do happen. Remember you are using the French system of justice—guilty until proven innocent. When the guilt is apparent, there is no need for research. Research can be overwhelming and time consuming. The antiques and collectibles business is a place where you have to learn to trust your gut.

I divide oil paintings into six groups: (1) paint by number; (2) works by staving/hack artist works, (3) department/furniture store art; (4) products of self-taught amateurs; (5) local and regional artists with some academic training, with emphasis on “some”; and, (6) art by professionally trained artists. The professionally trained artists are subdivided into (a) copyists, (b) portraitists, (c) realists, and (d) abstract.

Study the signature and/or date on a painting carefully. First, does the lettering and number style correspond to the script that was commonplace at the time. Second, examine the signature area closely to determine if the signature began life as part of the painting or was added later. If the signature or surface area surrounding the signature appears disturbed in any way, be suspicious. The varnish surface surrounded the signature should be identical to that over the signature. If the signature appears above the surface varnish, the probability is high that it is a fake. Third, the quality of the signature should match that of the painting.

Be leery of any oil painting that has a 3 by 5 to 8 by 10 pre-printed biography on the back, especially if the biography is about a European artists for whom you can find little to no information. Most of these artists are not as well-known as their biographies imply.

While the attribution of the phrase “the devil is in the details” is subject to dispute, the implication is not. Oil paintings should be examined in detail, in small one inch to three inch blocks if possible. Take a piece of paper and cut a one to three inch square in the center. Move the paper over the painting, paying close attention to any shifts in the quality of the painting, from brush strokes to composition detail. “The less you see, the more you see” is the operating principle.

Examine the quality of the frame. If the frame is high quality and has aging characteristics that suggest it is 75 years or older, it improves the changes that the oil painting in the frame has strong value. Older oil paintings can be re-framed. Modern copies are put into older frames to make them appear older than they are. Every rule has exceptions.

Authenticating paintings by artist signature is fraught with problems. Often there is more than one artist with the same name. When this occurs, seek out images of the artist’s work. If the work’s style does not conform to the oil painting you are researching, it is most likely not by that artist.

While there are many artist reference books as well as websites, most do not provide information on lesser-known regional artists, artists who sold their work within a 50 to 100 mile radius of their home. Besides the local library and art museum, regional auctioneers, who are most likely to encounter these works when auctioning estates, are excellent authenticating sources.

When you do not know, find someone who does. Guessing is a dangerous and often expensive game. Do not trust any expert who claims to be infallible. Oil painting authentication is a guessing game. No one guess right all the time.

[Author’s Aside #2: Many individuals in the trade, including appraisers and authenticators, are loath to admit that they are baffled by an object. When unsure, they are more prone to take an “educated guess” than admit that they do not know. Skilled appraisers and authenticators are not accustomed to having their opinions questioned. When in doubt ask for documented proof that supports the authenticator’s assertion.]

Is there something special about which you would like me to blog?

I love writing about antiques and collectibles and developments within the trade. I welcome your comments and suggestions as to topics you would like me to cover. E-mail your suggestions to harrylrinker@aol.com.

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