Authentication of high-end artwork is a complex process and since it does come up from time to time in my appraisal duties, it is worth exploring here. What many people are not aware is that most prominent painters (think Picasso, Rembrandt, and others) have a recognized expert or committee of experts upon which auction houses and collectors typically rely. While an appraiser can value a work on the assumption that the piece is genuine, for an auction house to be willing to sell a work by a prominent artist, they will likely insist on first having the work validated at the consignor's expense. Sometimes this can be avoided if the painting appears in a recognized catalog of the artist's work (called a catalog raisonné). Otherwise, the auction house will send high-resolution images of the work to the recognized expert (s) and abide by their verdict.
A downside to this, of course, is that if the work is indeed genuine but the expert says otherwise, the work will be considered by the art market to not be authentic. And if that is the case, the work will be largely unsellable as a genuine work by the artist. This has led to some serious legal dustups in past years... enough so that the committees for some artists such as Warhol and Rothko have actually disbanded due to the cost and threat of litigation. In one instance, an expert who was preparing a catalog raisonné for a prominent painter abandoned the project after actually receiving death threats from owners concerned their works would be deemed fake.
So, if you have a work by a major artist and you are considering the idea of bringing it to market, be aware that the process may be complex and also involve having to invest some money up front.
With precious metals prices at strong levels, it is more important than ever to make sure you don't miss gold or silver when bringing estate items to market. Most everyone knows to look for the all-important "sterling" mark on a piece of flatware or hollowware but coin silver an easily get overlooked.
What is coin silver? It is the grade of silver used by American silversmiths prior to the establishment of the assay system in the late 19th century. The term is derived from the fact that the silver content was the same as that used for coins of the day. Typically, coin silver is almost identical to sterling silver in purity and sometimes exceeds it. Marking was sporadic... typically, the maker's name would be stamped and occasionally the phrase,"pure coin". In many cases, there is only a single symbol which makes identification of the maker challenging. Still other pieces bear "pseudo hallmarks", which were meaningless symbols made to imitate the marks of British silver, which was considered superior at the time.
One tipoff that an item might be coin silver will be the form. On flatware, especially spoons and ladles, the handles typically are simple affairs in a fiddle shape. On especially early pieces, you might also see that the bowl and handle were two separate pieces that were joined together. Yet another tipoff is the absence of any mark such as EPNS denoting silver plate. Lastly, coin items when polished will look like sterling plus will often be fairly light since there is no base metal, as in plated items.
Like most sterling pieces, coin silver items are typically going to be worth their melt value more than anything else. The exception will be when the piece is by a prominent silversmith or is a fine example of silversmithing, such as an ornate teapot or ladle. There are several reference books available to identify early American silversmiths as well as one or two free online databases. These are always worth checking since some makers can bring considerable sums. Paul Revere, of course, is perhaps the most famous but certain southern makers, especially from Charleston and New Orleans, can bring handsome sums as well.
Many of us have seen Tiffany lamps with distinctive glowing gold glass shades. The term for this type of glass is "aurene" and it became popular among high-end glass companies beginning in the early 20th century. Interestingly, it was Steuben Glass that first created aurene glass c. 1910 and today they remain the company most associated with it.
The term "aurene" was derived by combining the first three letters of the Latin word for gold (aurum) with the Middle English spelling of sheen (schene). The process of creating aurene glass was both complex and ingenious. When being fired, the glass was sprayed with stannous chloride, which coated the surface with microscopic ridges. The ridges reflected and refracted light striking the glass and in turn produced the lovely soft golden (or silver) glow of aurene. Depending on the salts used in the making of the glass, aurene could be gold, silver, or a bluish color.
While Steuben pioneered aurene glass, other companies quickly adopted the process to their own lines, including Tiffany, Loetz, and Quezal. Today it remains popular with collectors and always brings a premium versus other, more common glass.
One of the most colorful products of the 19th century was pottery known as "Gaudy Welsh". Produced mainly in the Staffordshire district by companies such as Allerton Brothers, Gaudy Welsh in some ways represented a transition form hand-made pottery to mass-produced wares. It was produced in large quantities and was intended as everyday ware for the working class. Unlike the carefully crafted slipware with elegant, intricate designs, Gaudy Welsh had loose, colorful polychrome decoration highlighted with lustre that in some ways was akin to folk art and in other ways almost modernist.
The motto was, "cheap and cheerful" and that certainly summed up Gaudy Welsh. Like carnival glass, Gaudy Welsh was sold for very small sums and could often be purchased at fairs and markets. It came in all the usual forms, but most often one sees hollowware such as small pitchers and cups and saucers. Most pieces were utilitarian in design but some pieces have elegant forms and in some instances, unusual polychrome handles. The Allerton serpent-handled pitcher in the above photo is a good example.
The principle years of Gaudy Welsh production were 1840-1900. Despite the bold color and antique status, pieces of Gaudy Welsh can be had for remarkably small sums on sites such as Etsy and eBay. They make wonderful splashes of color and visual interest and the loose decoration means that a piece of Gaudy Welsh won't look out of place in a contemporary setting.
One of the more interesting things to be produced throughout the 19th century were "laydown" or "throwaway" perfume bottles. Made mostly in Czechoslovakia, Turkey, and England, these were hand-pulled bottles about 6 or 7 inches long that carried a small amount of perfume in them. They were essentially free samples and the bottles were made to be discarded. Nontheless, they were usually beautifully decorated, typically with gilt paint and enameling. Most were crystal and square-sided; less common (and more desireable) are those of spiral form and of colored glass.
Now... about that "tearful revelation". Mourning became a serious affair in England with the death of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria's difficulty in getting past it. Mourning jewelry, photography, and other related areas all became part of everyday society. One notion that has been revealed to be a myth, however, is that the laydown perfume bottles were for collecting tears while mourning a loss. This myth became so pervasive, in fact, that another name for these bottles is a "tear catcher" or a "lachrymatory". While it makes for an interesting story, it should also be regarded as the antiques equivalent of an urban myth.
Lastly, if you are fortunate enough to run across one or more of these bottles, expect to pay retail price between $100 to $300 apiece.
Native American jewelry remains a popular collecting category these days. It is a broad subject but here is a an overview to get you started.
Most pieces of NatAm jewelry are crafted of sterling silver and set with semi-precious stones associated with the American southwest. Turquoise is especially common in such pieces but you will also see jasper, onyx, coral, and many others as well. Within turquoise there are many different types, ranging to the pure greenish blue to "matrix turquoise", which is polished matrix with embedded streaks and pockets of turquoise. Finely crushed turquoise is also commonly seen.
The Zuni and Navajo peoples arguably have the deepest tradition of jewelry making but Hopi and other tribes crafted wonderful pieces as well (and continue to do so today). Identification can sometimes be a challenge, however. Many NatAm silversmiths used only their initials or, in some cases, a single symbol such as rising sun mark. Information is rather fragmentary on the internet and often times you will have the most success in ID'ing your pieces by turning to physical reference books. Also, be aware that often times a piece may not be marked "sterling" even though it is (Native American makers are, I believe, exempt from US Federal assay marking requirements).
Because many people brought back pieces from western trips and vacations, nice examples of NatAm jewelry can turn up almost anywhere. Personally, I have made some of my best finds going through the cases of flea market dealers and resale stores since often times, they haven't taken the time to research a piece and identify a prominent maker. The Jackie Singer bracelet shown above, for example, is only marked "J S". Singer was a prominent Navajo maker and the piece is 60 grams of sterling silver, even though it is not marked as sterling.
Value will naturally be guided by several factors. These include the maker, the level of craftsmanship, the amount of silver used, condition, and age. In general, older is better and a prominent maker will always be more desirable than a lesser-known silversmith. Sadly, fakes abound so be alert for "too good to be true" deals. In the meantime, happy hunting!
If you spend any time around older paintings, you will inevitably bump up against the subject of restoration. By now, most of us have seen the various articles on one or two botched restoration efforts of Old Master works in Spain, with the best-known one being the 2012 incident at a church near Zaragoza. This attempt at restoration, done by a well-meaning elderly parishioner, was so dreadful that the result became known as the "monkey Christ". And yes, it was that bad.
Fortunately, most of us aren't going to be tasked with repairing 16th century works of art anytime soon. But, you may come face to face with the topic of restoration if you are thinking of buying, and perhaps even re-selling, an historic work.
The first thing to know is that a little well-done restoration is not a deal-breaker... in fact, many famous paintings in museums have significant amounts of restoration. The rule of thumb when buying a painting is 10%... if more than that amount of the painting has been repaired, then you need to factor it into the price of the work. Clues as to it having been repaired will be visible patches on the back, areas on the front where the textures and finish are different (often times repaired areas are very smooth) and perhaps poor color matches in the repaired areas.
Another clue will be if the painting has been lined. Often called "re-lined", which is actually incorrect (that would imply the painting has been lined twice), lining is where the canvas has been infused with wax to stabilize loose and cracked paint, torn areas, etc. Lining is a perfectly standard restoration technique but it often means the painting had fairly serious condition issues.
Overpainting, also called in-painting, can usually be detected by the use of a UV light. Unfortunately, sophisticated masking varnishes are available now and clever sellers will sometimes employ these to hide the extent of the overpainting. Masking varnishes tend to glow green under a UV light so if you see that it has been used, tread carefully... there is no need for a masking varnish unless someone is trying to hide something.
Having a painting cleaned is also a standard restoration practice and usually adds value to the work unless poorly done. Certain paints such as many greens are chemically unstable and are referred to as "fugitive colors". Thus, someone who gets careless in cleaning a painting can easily take these colors off, in which case the painting is referred to as having been "skinned". Suffice to say, this really clobbers the value of a painting.
If you are unsure if a painting is dirty, look at the edges nearest the frame. Often times you will see a thin line of true color and this can give you a sense of what potential the painting might have. Back in my dealer days, I did vey well by buying dirty but good quality paintings since most people didn't realize how good the piece would be when cleaned. As far as the dirt goes, a gray cast often means the painting was in a home with fuel oil or coal heat. An orange cast (and sometimes accompanying odor) means nicotine. Fortunately, both usually come off rather easily with some simple household cleaners. I won't go into details here but anyone who is interested in a DIY approach is welcome to contact me for some instructions. You will want to do that before blasting away, though, trust me. One 'monkey Christ" is enough ;-)
As with most categories, the market for period frames is well off its high, which was reached in the early 2000's. That said, good frames can still bring money. Here are some things to look for if you are on the hunt.
First, a little history. The earliest frames were actually carved wood with gilding applied to them. Or, in the case of the Dutch, often it was a black finish. These early carved frames are valuable but also highly uncommon, so the odds fo finding one from the 16th or 17th century are pretty low, at least here in the US. For American frames, the highest dollar value frames typically will be those made by either a master frame maker like Stanford White or one of the master impressionists like Childe Hassam. These frames can bring north of $10,000 at auction. Suffice to say, they are pretty rare and not something you will likely find in a general re-sale or antiques store.
A little lower down the value scale will be the frames made by companies such as Newcomb-Macklin and Thanhardt-Burger. These are typically hand-carved and hand-gilded and can bring prices in the low thousands if a particularly nice frame. While these companies did make Louis-style frames, they are generally more associated with impressionist and craftsman-style frames. These frames, (and others like them by similar makers) you might very well find. Look either for labels on the back or hand-written frame maker's notes. These latter will usually reference size, color of base coat, and type of leaf used (22 gold leaf vs. metal leaf). Don't let the quality of the artwork deter you... more than once I have found exceptional frames with really bad paintings in them ;-)
Another frame company to watch for is House of Hedenryk. These frames often are Louis-style and will frequently have a pale wash. These frames were typically used for works by 20th century school of Paris artists, many of whom were carried by galleries in the US. Look for the Heydenryk label on the back of the frame, which ideally will still be in place. Thrift stores and resale stores are good hunting grounds for these frames since many people mistake them for later "shabby chic" frames. I have purchased Heydenryk frames for as little as $10 at re-sale stores and had them bring over $100 on eBay. Especially nice ones can bring several hundred dollars, so keep your eyes peeled!
The New Deal enacted during the Depression included an agency known as the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This agency encompassed a number of areas, with the largest focus being on road, bridge, and dam construction. It employed millions of jobless Americans and much of their work, including the TVA, became fixtures in American infrastructure.
Interestingly, the WPA also included funding for artists. To its credit, no preference was given to "sellable" art and thus even abstract painters like Jackson Pollock were given support. That said, the term "WPA art" tends to connote artwork that often depicted construction scenes and social realism, often in mural form. It is also often associated with the Regionalism movement epitomized by artists such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.
Today, this art remains popular among collectors. As one might suspect, the highest prices are commanded by the biggest art names. Still, even strong works by lesser known painters can bring good sums in the art market and should be something for a collector to consider acquiring.
One note of caution: true WPA works (i.e. those directly paid for by the government) were ruled by the courts some time back to still be the property of the US government. Many of these works, originally display in state and county buildings throughout the US, were dispersed over the years and fell into private hands. Should you come by one of these works (often times they will have a WPA plaque on the frame), tread carefully if you go to sell it. If it comes to the government's attention, they will confiscate the work. Usually you will be given the opportunity to donate it and receive a tax deduction... otherwise, it will simply be taken away from you. My advice: make the donation ;-)
With formal entertaining almost a bygone tradition and precious metals at strong levels, it is no wonder that many people have cashed in their sterling silver flatware for money. And while it is true that gold brings far more than silver, if you have enough of the latter it can still add up to a nice payday. So, if you decide to go looking through your drawers for goodies to monetize, just remember that because a piece does not say "sterling", it doesn't mean that your item is worthless silver plate. Listed below are some things to look for.
First, the easy one: the number 925. Sterling silver, like gold, is often represented by a purity number. And as many - if not most- of us know, sterling silver's purity number is 925. Often times the "925" can be very tiny or worn almost smooth but if you see it, you have sterling.
Another number you might see is 800, which I have also heard referred to as "Russian silver". Many people think that the 800 is a dealbreaker but nothing could be further from the truth. The 800 simply means that the item is 800 parts silver vs. 925. It isn't sterling but you will still get close to the sterling price from a reputable metals buyer.
Lastly, you might also see pieces (and these will usually be 19th century or earlier) that are "coin silver". This is the term used for American pieces made prior to the introduction of the assay system in the late 19th century and as the name implies, the silver was the same purity as that of minted coins. As a general rule of thumb, coin silver will be about 900 parts silver so it is almost the same as sterling. Sometimes these pieces will be marked "coin" or "pure coin" but often times, they are unmarked. Instead, look for the distinctive fiddle shape of the handles and also maker's marks. Most coin silver pieces will bear the maker's cartouche and frequently, pseudo-hallmarks as well. These hallmarks often are meaningless since there was no assay system at the time and instead were added to make the pieces look like their more desirable English cousins.
Now, the warning flags: If you see the terms "German Silver", "Alpaca", or "Alpaca Silver" that means they are not silver at all. Instead, they are alloys that looks like silver but have no precious metal value at all. The letters "EPNS" means another dud... this stands for "electro plate nickel silver" and is just that... silver plate.
Lastly, if you can find no marks, then always take it along with your other pieces to whomever you plan to sell to. Some of the Scandinavian silver, for example, is sterling but unmarked so better safe than sorry. A reputable metals buyer will be able to test it in the spot and give you the good or bad news. Hopefully, the news will be good ;-)
Bryan H. Roberts is a professional appraiser in Sarasota, FL. He is a member of the Florida State Guardianship Association, the Sarasota County Aging Network (president), and is certified in the latest Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practice (USPAP) Equivalent