The resources available today, particularly those licensed for UC Berkeley students and faculty, make it possible to uncover the story behind a famous painting with relative ease. Given the artist’s name and the title or year of the work, it’s possible to determine a painting’s historical context, artist biography and provenance – and identify high-quality images found both in books and digitally in image databases.
This guide provides an introduction to doing research on an artwork you know nothing about. Paintings inherited from relatives are often surrounded by family lore, which can sometimes provide helpful clues as to the piece’s identity, but can also keep us from viewing the art objectively. Murkier still are the histories of artworks plucked from yard sale piles and thrift store walls. Are they priceless treasures, or merely pleasant to look at? Finding the answers to these kinds of questions requires an entirely different approach to research, one that relies less on your ability to “google” and more on your ability to glean clues from the artwork in hand.
For those who don’t wish to pursue this research on their own, many auction houses offer free appraisal days, when you may bring your art to the gallery and receive a no-obligation assessment and appraisal by auction house employees. Additionally, appraisers are often willing to offer advice on research resources for your particular artwork. The links below include information to several Bay Area auction houses (note: Christie’s and Sotheby’s only have field offices in San Francisco):
San Francisco: 220 San Bruno Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94103
Tel: (415) 861-7500
Christie’s Fine Art Auctioneer
400 Montgomery St. #920
San Francisco 415-982-0982
San Francisco Office:
214 Grant Avenue
San Francisco 94108
Tel: (415) 772-9028
Created by Nora Deruisseaux, 2008, updated by Kathryn Wayne, 2015.