How not to waste money with your first Old Master?

4 things that make a painting worth investing

Marina Viatkina
Sep 4, 2018 · 6 min read

You now know the basic principles of building a good art collection. It is high time to learn how not to lose your money with your first purchases. Here are the core criteria that will help you safely buy an Old Master and not regret about the cash spent later.


Surprisingly, but this material parameter is also applicable to a work of art. And it becomes less metaphorical when you know exactly what to look at and what are the signs of a great master.

As a small side not — you’d better stop judging art by name. There is a common misconception that a household one is a quality assurance and your satisfaction guarantee. No doubt, world famous artists became celebrities for a reason. However sometimes this reason was just a mere concourse of favourable circumstances. (Which hints that there are tons of mediocre artworks topped with famous signatures even in museums). There were thousands of artists throughout the history of mankind and number of great masters is definitely more than walls of your local art gallery can hold.

The key art market value driver today (took it long enough to come to that though!) is the quality of artwork, not the name on it. And that should give you a certain relief — you can spot chef d’oeuvres in different price categories and even rediscover artists and whole art schools, that haven’t experienced what a proper marketing and branding could do these days.

So, here are the most representative details of a painting that speak of an artist’s real technical abilities and skills (as in Italy they used to call it — Maestria):

  • Hands. The first things you should train yourself to look at are the wrist, the fingers, the hand itself. How was it drawn? Does it look exactly like a real human’s hand or merely resemble some flabby glove as maximum? You would probably be surprised, but «hands» are the most challenging part of a human body in terms of correct naturalistic depiction. And their proper execution is a clear sign of a great master.
  • Face. That seems easy, right? Well, I’m sure you would have no problem in deciding whether the eyes, and lips, and nose etc. look right and touch your soul. The thing that takes more experience from you is the face expression. To get what I mean here just look at some portraits by famous Renaissance or Baroque painters and then at some artworks of later centuries. It may even seem like people looked different at those times, right? Actually, that’s due to the manner of their depiction. It emphasised spiritual part and high senses in place of some earthly feelings and externalism of a subject matter. All that is worth describing in a separate article. Meanwhile, enlarge your knowledge with just simply studying the paintings by great masters to familiarise yourself with how a beautiful, no rubbish, face looks like.
  • Tissue. Another clear marker of a skilful artist. Exquisite details of the robes, folding of the cloth, light and shadow play on the dress — you don’t need to be an expert to feel that your breath is taken away by the splendour of the tissue and accuracy of its execution. No wow-factor when it is definitely appropriate for the occasion? Alas.


It was hard enough to choose the right heading here. Well, you all know this saying that «each vegetable has its season». And here it means that works by artists that were in line with their contemporary artistic trends are way more valuable than artworks of later followers.

So to say, those who create hype are way more cool than the ones trying to ride this wave years after it all started.

For example, it was cool to paint in genuine Impressionism style in 1860’. Even in 1880’ it was still okay (general public was still throwing tomatoes, but those who knew — they applauded). By in 1890 this style started to evolve into lots of different directions, transforming into a handful of Neo- & Post-Impressionistic techniques. These guys were keeping up with the pace of time and that’s why their work payed-off in the end of the day and all of us know their names.

However, even in the 20th century there were hundreds of artists around the planet producing impressionistic paintings when this style finally hit the wide audience. Many of them became local stars at their countries. Chapeau to them, whatsoever! But did they shape the course of art history?


Frankly speaking, 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.

Canvas tissue was loosing its elasticity or got damaged — then restorers relined the painting (god, how they loved doing that regardless any reasons in 19th century!).

Previous owners changed frames, lost original ones, stored unwanted pieces in dusty closets — so many things could have happened to an artwork down the ages. And it likely came into hands of restorers, even not once. And chances are will do it again after you buy it.

That’s why it is so important to ensure that the existing restoration haven’t touched the most significant and valuable parts of the painting (see Quality part above). And if it did, make sure it didn’t damage them irreparably. There is a certain art of assessing the painting condition (yeap, that’s how art consultants justify their wages), but the least you can do is to ask for the photos of the backside of the paintings and close up pics of the canvas surface in question. So-called condition report would be useful, but not all auction houses would provide that for cheaper lots.

Anyway, I’ll try to summarise all the relevant tips and tricks and release it with a dedicated article.


To put it simple, provenance of the artwork is the roadmap of its former owners from the date of creation until today. Even for the world famous masterpieces it is often obscured at least in some part of their journey. And it requires a heck of a resources and luck to research the missing parts. So, most of the paintings on the market won’t have any indication of provenance or just some vague mention of a «former noble collection in France» (which, unless proved, equals to zero, btw).

However, there is something we can do to clear the painting of a suspicion that something is strikingly wrong with it. And this is a check up of it’s recent reselling history. There are several databases on the web (quiet expensive ones though) that offer extensive records of previous sales of artists’ originals and works attributed to them.

Try to search the artwork on stake within these databases or simply on internet to see if it wasn’t resold too many times in recent decade. Like if you find your work appeared on auction sales too frequently (say, 2–3 times in 5 years is already too much) — that’s a bad sign that something might be wrong with it and you’d better opt out of that deal.

Hidden Gem: Art Treasures through the lens of History

Short stories on art discoveries of an ever curious art…

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