How to Value: Old Master Paintings

Learn about how to value old master paintings, with our ValueMyStuff valuations and appraisals experts. Discover what to look for and how it can impact value.

Old Master Paintings

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a genuine painting by a renowned Old Master could be worth a small fortune; recently, the Salvator Mundi, the so-called “last da Vinci”, sold for the record price of $450 million at Christies, New York. There’s more to Old Masters, however, than these enormously valuable examples and many Old Masters can be found on the market closer to real-world prices.

Masters and Apprentices

Not all Old Master paintings were painted by Old Masters. It sounds crazy I know, but it all depends on your definition: many major artists had a wide following of pupils and apprentices working in their ‘atelier’ whose works come under the category of Old Masters. Rembrandt, for example, taught many Dutch Golden Age painters now respected in their own right. Also, because of his success in his own lifetime, there were also many people seeking to adopt the style of Rembrandt as was the case with many other master painters. Depending on the standard of these paintings, which are sometimes unsigned and feature subject matter used in other artists, the works of lesser known pupils can be a much more affordable alternative to the masters’ works themselves. In addition to the works of their atelier, the art market often sees studies by Old Masters, or recycled sections of larger pieces of art, usually from religious architectural decoration like friezes.

Age and Condition

As Old Master paintings can be up to 600 of 700 years old, the treatment of the painting over its lifetime can become a major factor in determining its value. The age of a painting can usually be determined by the style, especially if the artist is well-known, otherwise there are forensic methods of dating a painting. An examination under UV light, which can be done at home, is often very revealing of imperfections and past work done to Old Masters. As a general rule, restoration work done well and limited to the peripheral parts of the picture, such as background work with lesser detail, should not adversely affect the value of the painting. Appraisers will also always look to the reverse of a painting when attempting a valuation; the condition and age of the lining and other indicators such as the nails used on a canvas work are used to highlight any signs of restoration work or decay.

Fakes and Forgeries

Old Master paintings present some particular problems for the art market in assessing the value and whether a work is genuine. In the case of value, there are often fewer comparable sales to use as a barometer of market interest as a relatively large proportion of works are in public collections and the condition and rarity of a painting is sometimes a more significant factor than with more modern paintings. Problems of attribution and provenance stem from the fact that many pieces have long and incomplete histories and the creation of many works is complicated by the question of an artist’s atelier as previously mentioned. Painters both during the artist’s lifetime and in the years since have often deliberately attempted to copy styles and subject matter to cater for the tastes of their buyers, often without attempting a ‘forgery’ in the malicious sense. Connoisseurship and expertise on specific artists remains crucial to the valuation of Old Master paintings.

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