Assessing Old Master artwork condition. Part I — painting surface

Essential guide to making right purchasing decisions when buying art online

Marina Viatkina
Nov 20, 2018 · 6 min read

I have briefly touched the issue of physical condition of a painting in my article about investing in Old Master art. However, it may become one of the major reasons to opt out of the deal if something is wrong on that side. So, what are the signs to look at to make sure you are not wasting money with a painting even buying art online? I have prepared a special check list for assessing painting condition that you can easily perform by yourself — no special art expertise required.

The first part of this guide is about visual analysis of a painting surface. Second part is dedicated to backside examination. Third part is related to frames.

Getting down to nitty-gritty

Well, now you’ve spotted your potential hidden gem on an online sales, asked for conditional report and additional pictures of the painting. Not all of the auctions are providing condition reports (especially for the lots under certain estimate). In any case, you should ask for one. Read it carefully and compare it to your own observations an conclusions from looking at the painting pictures (and I always value the latter more). In most cases that would be enough to make your purchasing decision.

To make the right assessment always ask for as many photos of key details as possible

Before I share with you the most important tips and tricks art experts and dealers use in their practice, there are a couple of caveats I have to point out.

  • As I mentioned before, you should always keep in mind that if you buy an Old Master, it has definitely been restored or somehow manipulated throughout the length of its existence. Simply because it’s old and there is nothing permanent under the moon. Our goal is to briefly assess the extent of this manipulation and see if there are any reg flags that would make you put your purchase on hold. It is highly unlikely that you would find a crystal clear and freshly looking Old Master painting — this alone should make you become quite suspicious.
  • And please, remember that further list of actions is in no way an exhaustive one. There are many other indirect indicators of painting authenticity that require specific knowledge and extra efforts. However, this guide will still give you quite a profound idea of what to look at when checking up the painting by its available photos only.

Examining painting surface

As usual, start with a closer look at the face and the hands (if you there is a landscape or still-life in question, look at other major details of the painting). No matter how great is the picture resolution on the seller’s website always ask for additional photos of these areas specifically. Most of the times they are the most significant and important parts of the painting and any kind of damage or restorer’s intervention there may decrease artwork value dramatically.

Here are the potential drawbacks that you should check your painting for:

  • Painting layers washouts. We admire oil paintings for these remarkable light effects on a canvas surface that are made with glazing techniques. These are numerous thin transparent coating layers of paint that were applied by artist to give this vivid, deep and kind of tridimensional effect to the image. And this glazing is the main victim of a bad restorer. There are so many cases when taking off the old varnish from the canvas surface led to erasing layers of glazing and this way — taking volume out of the painting. Initially these full of life and kind of real flesh hands become flat and dull, like an old glove. Beautiful vibrant faces become masks.

This is an irreparable damage and drops down the value of a painting sharply.

Apart from that, why would you need such a thing in your collection?

Even a million-dollar Van Dyck still had some troubles with his hand
  • Breaks, holes and other mechanical damage. Well, not that you would often see a canvas full of holes like wounds streaming blood on a regular auction sale (though sometimes it happens and these cases could be actually very interesting, yet demanding a significant expertise and confidence in what you’re doing). Most of the times these defects would be already corrected to this or that extent by a restorer. A good one may even almost remove the imperfection or at least make nobody see it with the naked eye. Sometimes the defects are really troublesome and hard to cover up. Watch closely for evident overpainting areas, unusual craquelure structure (or occasional absence of one), scratches, paint losses and other visible surface imperfections. Most of the times these defects are easily reparable. However, avoid paintings with damages in facial areas at all costs.
1 — round craquelure & fabric break in the place of a stroke; 2 — pink colour of later overpaint; 3 — painting layer loss

Though I am generally talking about an oil painting on canvas, most of the points are applicable to other media and supports. Just think ivory plate cracks in portrait miniatures; fractures and ageing signs of wooden panels or paper breaks and light effects in drawings and watercolours. Or take these awful powdering and fading effects of pastel colour pigments that are triggered by even minor transportation shocks. A great knowledge treasure trove could be found in this pastel-only famous blog here and here.

  • Dirt, dust and old varnish. These are quite light troubles you may come across when checking out paintings at auction sales. You would have to train your eye detecting easy removable dirty spots and yellowed with age varnish and not mix them up with anything more serious. Just a small side note — though it may seem easy to clean up the painting yourself — better don’t do it until you become a seasoned collector with at least some basic restoration track record ideally.
Remouving old varnish to reveal the original coulour scheme
  • Third hand image interventions. And here I am talking about some restorers and art dealers that used to raise the commercial potential of paintings by introducing some «beautification» additions to them. Kind of 19th century «photoshopping» (a common practice those days). From adding kitschy red «lipstick» and blush to the understated faces of the sitters to repainting whole background areas of the pictures. Even heavy interventions could be usually repaired in good restoration studios. To spot them look for unusual colour palette appearing on some key details and looking too bright (like, using the same red pigment for lips and earrings, for example), visually different brush stroke areas and unconventional colouring in some areas. However, pigments and their analysis are a whole another story and most of the time it requires detailed scientific examination, which I shall take off the table in this article.
Unnecessary later “beautification” of a Florentine baroque allegoric figure

This is the video where I examined the case with one of the pearls of Sotheby’s Master Painting Evening Sale in New York in winter 2018 in close detail. It is quite a rare example for fine art auction sales of the highest rank — an artwork with a joint authorship. At least two artists and a restorer added something of their own to this picture. So I welcome you to watch this video to test your own eye of a connoisseur.

I will continue sharing other important indicators of a painting condition and authenticity with Part II of this story. We are going to talk about the backsides of canvases and panels.

My name is Marina Viatkina and I am an art collector, researcher and art advisor. You may read my other art-related articles, watch videos or reach out to discuss this blog and address your art enquiries here or on my website

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