How to Identify Antique Paintings

By Debbie Pollitt
A certificate of authentication is no guarantee of a genuine antique painting.

There are three prevailing opinions among art professionals on what constitutes an antique painting: strict constructionists only consider works from the Greek and Roman Empires to be antiques; others count paintings from the 1800s and before; and some believe antique to mean paintings that are 100 years and older.

Whichever school of thought you subscribe to, certain steps can help to identify antique paintings. While it's possible to assess the age of a painting as an enthusiastic amateur, it's always advisable to consult the relevant professionals for a totally reliable identification.

Differentiate between identification and authentication. Identifying your antique painting is only one initial part of the authentication process and amateur art-lovers can try to do it without an expert. Identification is an educated assessment of the painting's true age and provenance.

Authentication, on the other hand, expands on identification and is a "detailed academic investigation," according to Freeman Art. Authentication also generally involves specialist forensic analysis and extensive scientific testing to establish the integrity of the painting. Identifying an antique painting relies on research, knowledge and gut instinct whereas authentication is, reports the Chicago Appraisers, "an exacting science."

Study the back of the painting. You can discover more about an antique painting from information found here than on the front. Gallery labels, auction stickers and museum inventory numbers may remain giving extra vital information as to the origins of the painting.

The backs of genuinely old paintings darken significantly through the years, as does the stretcher wood that holds the canvas together. Antique darkness can be forged, however, so look for further evidence of age in the nails used in the stretcher. New nails probably means a new picture.

Identify your painting online. Although identification is not an exact science, most credible appraisers will do an initial assessment this way if you send them the right information. Prices for this service vary depending on the firm but start at approximately $50 for a single item. They offer no guarantees of value or authenticity from this process and can only judge the digital images based on what information you give them.

To get the best possible outcome with an online identification, always send good quality digital pictures, shot in daytime and use a tripod or put the camera on a flat surface. Take shots of the front and the back of the painting, include close-ups of any markings or signatures and send a note of the size and picture dimensions.

Tip

Attend an appraisal day at your local art auction house or appraisal company, as many companies offer free verbal valuations at these events.

Take an art history or related course to help you identify your own paintings. Christie's in New York, for example, has an education center and offers short courses to fit around your schedule.

Warning

Study the latest reports of common scams and forgeries. According to the Los Angeles Appraisers, the art world has been "flooded" by fake antique paintings from Asia in recent years. Look out for genre works of dogs, cats, hunting scenes, seascapes and landscapes.

Watch out for false signatures. Forgers often use names that sound similar to famous artists' names and it's easy to be fooled into hearing something plausible.

About the Author

Debbie Pollitt started writing professionally in 1991. Her first book, "Lifeguide: Promoting a Positive Way of Life," was published in the United Kingdom by Boxtree Ltd., followed by two fun recipe books titled the "The Main Ingredient" series. Pollitt holds a Bachelor of Arts in American studies and sociology from Manchester University.