A pretty and quite characteristic rendering of a young ballet dancer by Edgar Degas can be enticing yet costly. Remember, when you uncover a treasure such as this beautiful pastel, take close note if the work is framed. Condition could be an issue and the frame may be hiding serious damage.
This pastel is a good starting point for a study of techniques. Start studyng print and other art techniques slowly. Try to accurately distinguish different types of works on paper. Compare etchings and engravings or gouaches and watercolors. Works on paper can be tricky but they are a joy to collect.
Haven't we all seen something that resembles this oval shaped portrait print. There are so many prints that look like this one that sometimes we think we are looking at an antique when we are looking at something printed last week. You are not alone if you can't immediately discern an old print from a new one. Many people have a difficult time ascertaining whether such a work is an etching, drypoint, mezzotint, engraving, or some combination of print processes. Look closely an remember that recognition takes a lot of practice.
You want difficult...try to tell all of the printing methods apart for all of the art historical time periods since the 1500s (and don't forget about 19th century posters) Now, that's tough.
This poster by Toulouse Lautrec represents the actress and dancer, Jane Avril. The colorful and bold execution of this graphic work announces the artist's acceptance into the circle of the Post Impressionists.
In many of my Art Advice columns, I will discuss the topic of buying art for investment. I will cover the basic points that you should consider when making an art purchase for investment. This Art Advice column will concentrate on the quality and condition of works on paper. I'll offer some tips for assessing the age of a work of art and specifically, this column will focus on works on paper. I will discuss quality and condition issues for oil paintings, sculpture, and art in other media in future Art Advice columns.
For starters, I suggest that you print this page and take it with you when you are making an outing to a flea market, art gallery, dealership, or art show. If you are embarrassed to bring it with you, just leave it in your car and consult it before you begin your shopping. Personally, I've gotten over the embarrassment thing because art purchases are important and questions are warranted.
You have the following hypothetical art situation:
You are at a flea market, garage sale, art show, gallery, or auction and you see this beautiful framed print. It looks like it has some age (i.e., you think that maybe it is about 50 years old or so) and you are very attracted to it. You don't mind the age and you shouldn't mind it, in most cases. You even find that the old frame is growing on you. So, you think, "Great, I found something of interest, I think I'll buy it."
Then you hear my little voice say: "Beware. It's framed." You think, "Why should I be afraid to buy a framed piece? I'm getting the frame and the artwork--it's a bargain." People love bargains or love to believe they are getting bargains. You should beware because a frame and a mat can hide many problems including severe damage (undetected or not presently visible) on a work on paper.
What is it? This is always question #1.
You have to have an idea of what you are buying. Is this image on paper a drawing completed in charcoal? ink? or pencil? or another technique? Is it an aquatint? Is it a watercolor? Is it a gouache? Is it an example of multiple printing techniques like etching with drypoint? Is this a print at all? Is it a lithograph? a serigraph? an etching? an engraving? a monotype? a collotype? a poster? a giclee? or a magazine reproduction?
You don't know, do you! Yes, I meant to scare you. I did it on purpose. I apologize but this is how you can be really taken for a ride. It's my job to arm you with information so that doesn't happen and so you don't waste your money and become disappointed when you get the piece to an expert--or unframed at home. I'm going to educate you so you can make smart art investments and purchase good works of art for your collection and enjoyment. Once you know what you are looking at, and I'll teach you how to distinguish some of the most common printmaking techniques, then you can assess your art purchase.
When was this work produced?
Only give yourself about 25 years either way (e.g., too early or too late) when trying to determine a date of a work of art. I require my students to know the date of a work of art within 10 years for most art history courses so 25 years isn't a stretch for an interested collector. Try to make a judgment call on when the piece was made. Look at the style, the condition, the frame and the mat (they'll speak volumes if you know what to look for and remember, people do place young works in old frames to trick you), etc. Don't take the seller's or anyone else's proposed date that is more than 25 years. If someone says, "that's a 19th century print," then ask "which quarter of the 19th century?" One century or 100 years is a long time when someone is trying to sell you art. The art historical styles change with frequency. You and a reputable seller should be able to tell the age of an object in no more than 25 year blocks. Study and be strict with yourself. Think in terms of quarter centuries when trying to tell the age of a work of art.
What does the mat and frame look like? What type of condition are they in?
Look at the area where the mat was cut, does it look yellow or brown in color? Is most of the mat white or a different color than the opening where the mat was cut to reveal the work of art? Is the opening of the mat now brown? When you look closely at the work, is the entire work on paper sort of brown/beige, too? If so, a big red flag should go up that reads: "Consider condition before you buy this work!"
If the mat's opening is brown, that means you have an acid mat and more often than not with older works on paper, you will see an acid mat. If the print looks brown/beige too, that means that the paper has suffered from acid burn and the value has decreased with the deteriorated condition. The mat has damaged the piece and you probably don't want to buy it.
The frame can tell you a great deal too. Frames that show cracking, mismatched corners, or other physical damage are the same frames that are supposed to protect a work of art inside. That means if the frame has been damaged and abused, probably so has the work of art. If you see moisture or condensation or even excess dirt on the glass of a frame, you may have mold growing on the paper or other deterioration conditions such as foxing. That is not a sign of distinction and age, as I have heard many dealers explain it, but that is damage--pure and simple. Foxing looks like little specs of dark brown in areas on the work of art; most prevalent and easy to recognize on works on paper. This is just a form of fungus eating away at the paper and simultaneously, eating away at the value of your art. Sometimes this can be controlled with conservation treatments but you should understand these issues for what they really are.
Determining condition and quality is a good topic and I appreciate your questions about it. I will return to this topic and discuss more specific points relating to condition in future columns. Please keep the questions coming and feel free to contact me.
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