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How To Tell If a Painting Is Valuable: Insider Tips From Appraisers

You could have a Dalí on a dime!


There’s nothing like the thrill of the hunt. That’s the appropriate attitude when it comes to scouring yard sales, estate sales, and consignment shops for gems amongst the junk. Some of the best items to look for in these places are paintings and artwork. Yes, you may find yourself leafing through frame after frame of sad clowns, inscrutable fruits, and dollar-store reproductions of the Mona Lisa. However, you could also stumble upon something unique — or something worth a lot of money. See these tips from professional appraisers that explain how to tell if a painting is valuable.

Can you find a valuable paintings at yard sales?

Yes — in fact, a Massachusetts man once found a 50 million-dollar drawing at a local estate sale. In 2017, the man (who wishes to remain anonymous) attended the sale and found a small, black-and-white drawing of a woman and a child with a small “A.D.” scribbled in the corner. He told news outlets he got it for $30, believing it “a wonderfully rendered piece of old art, which justified purchasing it.”

After getting it professionally appraised, he found it wasn’t just any piece of old art; it was an original piece by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. The piece, titled The Virgin with a Multitude of Animals, is estimated to have been completed around 1506. The lucky Massachusetts man learned that it may be worth up to $50 million dollars, according to the Agnews Gallery in London… and he only paid $30 for it. Talk about a good return on investment

How to tell if a painting is valuable

Want to have your own fortune-finding experience? Your chances are slim, but not non-existent. Below, the professional appraisers at Portland, Oregon-based firm Gary Germer share nine questions to ask yourself in order to determine whether or not a work of art is valuable. 

1. Is it in good condition?

This is the first thing you should ask yourself before buying a piece. If it’s torn, ripped, cracked, or otherwise damaged, its value will be reduced. Give it a thorough evaluation on all sides before you make a decision.

Related: Cleaning Pictures: How To Make Your Framed Photos Look Their Best

2. Who owned it first?

The ownership history of the work could be a good indicator of whether or not it’s valuable. For example, if you know you’re at an estate sale for someone of renown in the art community, you’re likely to have a higher chance of finding a precious piece. Not only would the previous owner have knowledge of the arts’ value; but their ownership of it could add to its value. Ask the salespeople if they know the work’s ownership history or have any kind of documentation, and check the back of the frame — it might have the owners’ name.

3. Who created it?

Try and determine the artist behind the work. Sometimes, the painter’s name is scribbled in a corner; other times, it’s not actually on the piece. Do research on the elements you do have — style, subjects, potential age, and more. If the artist died early or led an interesting life, your work could be more valuable due to its rarity. 

Be warned, however, of forgeries and reproductions, as these are not as valuable as originals. If you think your piece might be of notable provenance, look for signs of age, and any inconsistencies in signatures, colors, and textures.

4. What’s the material?

The work’s medium, as well as its material, may impact its value. Paintings tend to be more valuable than sketches or prints, and paintings done on canvas are worth more than those on paper. Keep in mind that materials could indicate authenticity, as well. For example, if a piece looks old, but is on a brand-new looking canvas, it may be a forgery or reproduction.

5. What’s the subject matter?

If the artist of the piece is significant or famous, it will be valuable no matter the subject of the work. However, there are some subjects that tend to sell better than others, say the appraisers at Gary Germer. For some reason, paintings of beautiful women tend to sell for more money than those of men, and colorful, bright landscapes tend to be more valuable than gloomy or dark ones.

6. What’s the frame like?

The frame is part of the work and may add to its value. A high-quality frame, or one that’s the same age as the art, could mean your piece is worth a lot more. 

Related: Your Antique Picture Frame Could Be Worth Big Bucks — Here’s How To Tell

7. What colors are in it?

Colors can help determine a work’s value as well — specifically, the colors red and blue, say the appraisers. Historically, works with a lot of red or blue in them have sold for more money — as much as $50,000 more, to be exact. 

8. What size is it?

The bigger, the better. A larger piece will have more “wall power,” as it demands more attention, and therefore, may be worth more. 

9. What’s on the back?

Sometimes, the back has important info, such as artist signatures, previous owners, and more. Anything written on the back may add value to the piece. The appraisers at Gary Germer share that one persons’ painting was appraised for $8,000, but after professionals found a signature and other information written on the back, it sold for $37,500. It pays to look closely. 

If you’ve done all these things and still can’t determine a work’s monetary value, contact a professional appraiser. And remember, even if it isn’t worth much money, a painting can still be valuable if you love it. Enjoy the hunt!

For more old things that could be worth lots of money:

Could Your Antique Perfume Bottles Be Worth Thousands of Dollars? Maybe, Say Collectors

Vintage Turntables Have Made a Comeback — Yours Could Be Worth $1,000s

Barbie’s Fabulous 64-Year History + Discover What *Your* Vintage Barbie Is Worth

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