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How to Research an Artwork: Identification

Identification

Differentiating a painting from a print may seem basic, but it can be tricky, particularly if the piece seems to have antique value.  Don’t be fooled by an artwork’s age.  Even if it’s been in the family since the early 20th century, it may still be an offset print – a photomechanical reproduction of an original painting – since the first offset printing press was invented in 1905.

Online Resources

History Wired: Rubel Offset Lithographic Press
A brief history and explanation of offset printing from the Smithsonian Institute

Identifying an offset print requires that you look very closely at your artwork – in some cases, you may need a magnifying glass, etc.  One approach is to examine any disparity between the perceived versus the actual texture of the piece.  If the “painting” appears to have a heavy impasto, thick brushstrokes, etc., but the surface is actually smooth (this examination may require you to remove the artwork from its frame), it’s most likely a photomechanical reproduction.  If you can see a dot pattern, particularly in the darker areas of the piece, that’s an indication that the art is an offset print.  This dot pattern looks like a more refined version of the technique used in comic book illustrations and newspaper photos.

Cornell University Library: Illustrated Book Study Resolution Samples   
This site illustrates different printing techniques.  The “Halftone Print” is an example   of what an offset print looks like. The “structure sample” images in this illustrated guide to print techniques are particularly useful for identification.

In terms of value, offset prints don’t often have a strong resale, or auction, value, because they’re far removed from the artist’s hand.  With the exception of contemporary prints, generally, an artist doesn’t originally choose the medium of offset printing; it merely serves as a way to reproduce or mass-produce an existing artwork.  Because of this, an artist’s auction records don’t often play a role in the appraisal of offset prints – they are typically assigned a purely decorative value.

A basic rule of thumb for identifying an original print is to look for a visible pattern in the ink, as it serves as an indication that the art is a print.  These patterns not only identify the work as a print, they help to identify the exact printing technique used by the artist.

Museum of Modern Art: What is a Print?
An animated tutorial to printing techniques

Washington Printmakers Gallery: Printing Techniques
Illustrated guide to print techniques

International Fine Prints Dealers Association: Learn About Prints
Click on “Collecting Prints”on home page.

Dutch University Institute for Art History Florence: Watermark Database
If a watermark appears on the print’s paper, this database can be used to place the paper both chronologically and geographically.

Bernstein Consortium: The Memory of Paper Database
A portal with links to 21 watermark databases and more than 205,000 watermarks. 

Tate Gallery: Glossary
This page is a dictionary not only of artistic media, but also artistic movements, etc.

Identifying the artist of an unsigned work can be difficult, but there are often clues available to look for.  For example, any stamps on the back of the canvas or the stretcher bars can potentially identify the supplier of those materials.  This, in turn, can identify your painting’s country of origin, as well as place it in a rough time period.  Additionally, some artists used only certain suppliers, and this information can be used by an expert to authenticate (or discredit) your painting as the work of a particular artist.

National Portrait Gallery: Artists’ Suppliers
A listing of artists’ suppliers in England from 1650-1939

Gallery, auction and exhibition labels on the backs of paintings can also yield new directions for research.  Knowing where a piece was exhibited or auctioned can be useful, particularly if a catalog for that exhibit or auction exists.  Sometimes even shipping labels still affixed to a painting hint at the origin of a painting, or perhaps its prior owners.

University of Santa Barbara: Arts Library Special Collections
UCSB is the UC systemwide repository for auction catalogs

 

Print Resources

Identifying the artist of a painting is a key step in assessing the value and significance of an artwork.  Whereas many prints are plate signed, even if they aren’t pencil signed, many paintings are either unsigned or signed indistinctly.  However, there are reference tools to help decipher faint or illegible signatures.

Davenport’s Art Reference & Price Guide.  Ventura, Calif.: Davenport's Art Reference.  Current year shelved in Doe Reference Room N8670.D38
This annual publication lists every known artist with auction records.  Although it can be a tedious task, if you can decipher a few letters in the signature, this book is likely to help you come up with a full name.  

The Art Signature File, by G.B. David.  Atlanta, Ga.: Antoine Versailles Publishing, 1998.  Art History/Classics Library Room 308J - Reference N45.D38 1998  
This book provides an index of images of noted artists’ signatures.

Catalogues of Sales: 1734-1945. Sotheby & Co. 1734-1945. Part I (Reels 1-71; 1734-1850); Part II (Reels 1-148; 1851-1900); Part III (Reels 1-155; 1901-1945).  News/Micro, MICROFILM 16663.Z (Shelved at NRLF)
Covering catalogues from the British Museum collection, each catalogue is preceded by a contents card detailing the names of the owners, date of sale, number of pages, lots, illustrations, location of the copy filmed, and the contents of the sale. To facilitate use, the entries in the guides for each part are arranged in the same chronological order as the catalogues in the microfilm collection.  Contents are categorized under the following headings: Autographed Letters, Art (Objects), Art (Pictorial), Books, Coins and Medals, Mss. (Western), Mss. (Oriental), and Other. Approximately 10,000 catalogs on microfilm.

Additionally, if you can identify the time period (often a date is legible, even if the signature is not) and genre of your artwork, researching that genre and its noted artists may yield potential names.  

Identifying a painting’s medium can also help determine its authenticity, in the case of artists who work only in certain media.

Identifying the artist of an unsigned work can be difficult, but there are often clues available to look for.  For example, any stamps on the back of the canvas or the stretcher bars can potentially identify the supplier of those materials.  This, in turn, can identify your painting’s country of origin, as well as place it in a rough time period.  Additionally, some artists used only certain suppliers, and this information can be used by an expert to authenticate (or discredit) your painting as the work of a particular artist.

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