Tips For Fine Art Collectors

Tips for Looking at Previous Art Conservation Before Buying A Painting


Practically daily, I am asked to help look over a painting that is being considered for purchase. Most of the confusion, on the part of the buyer, is when the painting doesn’t look exactly right even though there have been previous restoration/conservation treatments. Some of the questions that a collector could/should ask would be:

1. Does this painting look its best?

2. Has the previous restoration/conservation been done well?

3. Does the present condition impact the price of purchase?

Here’s an example…

Cleaning a previously cleaned painting

This painting was previously, recently cleaned.

This painting by William Wendt was lined with wax and cleaned. The painting is still muted or gray looking and the cracking is still pretty pronounced. Before purchasing the painting the prospective buyer asked me to look it over. By understanding the improvement that could be had with proper conservation treatments (complete cleaning and relining to remove the cracks) the buyer felt completely informed… full disclosure. Our price to do the cleaning, remove the wax lining and reline was $1,500.00. In this case, the buyer was able to negotiate a different sales price that was much lower than the cost of conservation. But, many dealers will at least pay for any additional conservation work needed in order to “seal the deal.”

Another question is, “Should the painting be cleaned and lined AGAIN?” Since this painting is not flaking and not at risk, preservation wise, the conservation work is mostly motivated by aesthetics. In this case, then, I usually ask what the “threshhold of pain” is for the collector. Does the collector care if the painting doesn’t show off its best color? Does cracking bother the collector (if its not at risk for flaking)? If the answer is “No”, then don’t have the work done.

This painting still needs cleaning because either the restorer didn’t see the additional dirty layer (after the top layer was removed) or the owner wanted a cheap clean which only took off the top layer of varnish but not the underlying harder layer.

Its unclear why the painting was lined with wax. It doesn’t appear to have benefited the painting at  all. It doesn’t look like it was ever flaking. So, this part of the previous treatment was simply low quality work.

This painting is actually in great condition, meaning that it has not been damaged. It will be cleaned to reveal its best colors and lined to remove the cracking. Hopefully, the spirit of William Wendt will be proud to have his painting seen in its best light.

So, what can you do to feel like you’ve got “full disclosure” (and understand all your options) before you buy? Here are 3 tips:

1. We will look at the painting for you, at no cost, if the process does not involve analysis.

2. Buy from a reputable dealer. You were probably referred or linked to this website buy someone we do business with and therefore I would trust them to give you an honest full disclosure.

3. If you are buying at auction, we often preview artwork for a fee. The main auction houses will allow me to come in for a special viewing(evaluation) at your request. I know most of the painting dept people.

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Comments (2)

Isla CazneauxDecember 29th, 2013 at 10:37 am

You’ve provided some useful advice that will help me. Thank you for taking the time to do
this. I’m always looking through estate sales and wonder about condition.

Jim HellorMay 8th, 2016 at 7:43 am

Very good tips. I am not thinking that I could learn everything there is to know about spotting things like this, but you are pushing us all in the right direction.

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