Part I: You Be the Expert

Original Paintings versus Reproduced Prints

Many of our appraisal inquiries come to us from people who have inherited art, and don’t know where to start with understanding its value. Art is an incredibly rich, complex subject that challenges even self-professed connoisseurs. The art market can be volatile, surprising, and often frivolous. An appraiser will form an educated opinion of value only after extensive research that examines the art and artist under every possible angle. It’s an inexact science. In this series, we will outline the criteria that appraisers use, and offer our tips to improve your own ability to identify art.

Connoisseur by Norman Rockwell, 1962

‘Connoisseur’ by Norman Rockwell

How do you identify an original painting from a printed reproduction? In order to begin to understand what your art is worth, we must first narrow down what it is. It’s not unusual for the Monet painting found in grandma’s attic to be a reproduction or a poster; place a print into an elegant frame and under glass, and it looks expensive. We save our clients a lot of time and money by teaching them to evaluate their own art, as hiring a professional to evaluate and value art can be expensive.

Start by looking closely at original paintings. Take a trip to the museum or a gallery, and get as close as you can to the art. You’ll see brush strokes: some artists use small, carefully layered brushstrokes to create perspective, shadow, and lines; some artists use large, rapid brushstrokes to create form and texture. Compare an oil painting to a watercolor painting. Stop and stare until you train your eyes to see the differences.

Here are some tricks to identifying clues that will show whether you have an original painting or a print reproduction.

    • Is it framed behind glass? Paintings are often left exposed under their frames, while prints are placed under glass.
    • Under light, watch the surface of the piece as you slowly turn it back and forth. Either you will see variations in the texture of the paint or the surface will appear very flat. A flat surface indicates that it is printed on paper or reproduced on canvas. If you see globs of paint, brush strokes that vary between colors, and variations between thick and thin paint, you are looking at a painting.
    • To inspect more closely, look at the surface under a magnifying glass:
      • If you see texture, but it appears in regular swirls that do not correlate between the shapes and colors, it is a reproduction.
      • If you see a clear layer that has texture, but cannot identify actual paint texture, it is a reproduction.
      • If you see tiny dots, it is a print.
  • Look at the back of the piece.
    • If it is a painting, you will likely see canvas stretched on bars. You may be able to see spots where the paint or the medium leaked through to the back of the canvas.
    • Cardboard backing indicates it is a print.
    • Do you see any manufacturer’s labels? An artist’s signature or title? A dealer’s stamp? Look for any clues, numbers, or writing that would indicate the history of the piece.
A reproduction of Pink Skiff by Claude Monet looks like it has lots of texture, but is flat upon closer examination.

At first glance, a reproduction of Pink Skiff by Monet looks like it has lots of texture, but is flat upon closer examination.

The higher quality the printing, the more closely a print can resemble a painting. Large companies often reproduce famous original paintings, and use advanced printing technology that tricks the untrained eye. For example, a print-transfer is a photo-mechanical print of an original oil painting or watercolor that has been glued to canvas or cardboard.

Of course, this doesn’t begin to answer the question that most people are asking: what is it WORTH? If you have a reproduction or a machined print, it most likely lacks much value in the art market. This is not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy it for what it is, as most of us lack the funds to purchase authentic masterworks.  Look for our next newsletter, where we will continue to discuss many of the factors that appraisers have to evaluate prior to determining the value of art.