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Top 3 Selection Criteria When Buying Artwork

Hello again from Martin Ayers at Wessex Gallery, Melbourne.

Today I am detailing what I believe to be the top three selection criteria you should always apply when buying a painting.

There are, of course, a whole range of selection criteria which may be applicable to your selection, which can include style/movement, colour mix, medium, brushwork, size, frame etc. All these are important and should be included in your ultimate choice of purchase. However, I have listed below three selection criteria that should always be at the top of your list and applied first.

Condition - Things to verify:

  • Is the painting as described e.g. oil on canvas, oil on board, watercolour on paper, mixed media on canvas or paper.

  • Is the paintwork stable? Are there any obvious signs of damage, paint missing or flaking, craquelure (cracking to paint surface), has the painting been re-lined? On watercolours are there signs of fading, staining, water damage or brown 'foxing' marks. Old oil paintings which have hung above an open fire can suffer heat damage when the paint becomes bituminised. This needs to be removed and the damaged areas restored.

  • Is there any sign of previous repair/restoration. If buying from a gallery or auction house, ask them to check the painting under ultraviolet light. This will highlight any areas with repair or over-paint.

  • Depending on factors such as the age of the work, rarity and desirability (e.g. a work by Van Gogh or Picasso), some condition issues may be acceptable but will depend on the degree and areas of damage. For example, if the face of a portrait is badly damaged or the artists signature is damaged, making attribution difficult, then it may be wise to give this work a miss.

  • If considering buying a painting with damage, it would be wise to get a repair/restoration estimate before purchasing as restoration can be expensive and this needs to be factored into your purchase price.

  • Is the paintwork clean? Over time, unless under glass, paintings will attract dust and grime and may benefit from a light clean? Surface dirt or fly spotting should not necessarily be a deterrent to purchasing a work as a good art restorer can clean a painting for a relatively low cost. However, avoid paintings which have previously been over cleaned where the brushwork and thickness of the paint has been worn down due to over zealous cleaning.

  • With the advent of Internet sales, most importantly if you are buying remotely i.e. sight unseen, it is essential that you request a detailed written condition report from the vendor and high-resolution images of the front and back of the painting and the frame. This will then enable you to make a detailed assessment of your proposed purchase. Having this level of detail is also important as all reputable dealers and auction houses will cancel the sale and refund the purchase price if the work turns out to be not as described.

Authenticity - Things to verify:

  • Is the work signed and does the signature look authentic. A simple Internet search will display images of other works by this artist and you can compare the signatures on these works.

  • Is the work being sold as an original work 'by the artist' as opposed to 'artists school', 'in the manner of', 'follower of'?

  • Is there any provenance i.e. written history for the work. This is particularly important if the work is unsigned. This can include previous auctions where the work was sold, private collections or exhibitions the work has been included in, previous sale receipts, 'certificate of authenticity' by a recognised expert in this artist's works.

  • Check the back of the work. This is often a mine of information with gallery, framers or auction house labels which help to establish the history of the work.

  • Proceed with Caution, particularly if investing a large sum in artwork, there are a lot of fake paintings in circulation. If you see a work for sale which looks like a bargain, be particularly careful as this can indicate that there are issues with the work. Fakers can be extremely skilled not just in painting of the work but also in building a false provenance trail.

Price - Things to verify:

  • Is the vendor price or auction price guide realistic and in line with comparable prices achieved for works by this artist which are the same period, medium, similar in size and condition. You can use the Internet to check prices or, for the more serious collector, you may subscribe to one of the professional art sales databases which you can find on the Internet.

  • If buying from a private vendor or gallery it is always worth inquiring if a discount is available. Be prepared to negotiate on price.

  • If buying at auction, do your research before the auction and set the top price you are prepared to bid and stick to this; do not get sucked into a bidding war as you may well find you end up paying far too much for the work. Remember to include Buyers Premium (the commission fee charged by the auction house which currently can be up to 36% on top of the purchase price) or shipping costs is buying remotely.

  • If buying overseas, check currency exchange rates and whether you will be liable for import fees and taxes. These can vary widely from country to country and between states. If the painting has a wooden frame you may also be required to pay for it to be fumigated. This can all add up to a significant extra cost to your purchase.

  • Remember to factor in the cost of cleaning, restoration, re-framing/frame repair.

  • Remember, prices for art can go up and down as fashions and tastes change. Buy art you like and can afford.

Finally, if you currently feel that you lack the confidence, skills or knowledge to confidently make purchases, but you want to proceed, seek expert assistance from a major gallery or auction house in your locality. They will usually be very happy to assist and guide you.

I hope you find my guide of interest and assistance. If you have any questions relating to the purchase of artwork, please email me at

Happy buying.

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