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A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Art Research for Beginners

It's not that hard to be your own art detective.

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So you find a painting in the attic, or inherit one, or fall prey to the charms of a sculpture at a charity shop. How do you know if it's valuable, and to whom it might be valuable? Or suppose you feel an empathetic tie to the artist or the era of your treasure? How do you find out more?

I love this kind of research. Most of my work is finding needles in haystacks for the art trade: auction houses, private galleries and collectors. I also do research for scholars who need articles in professional journals and other arcane writings only found in a few big-city art research libraries. But I'm also happy to work with individuals.

Here are some painless rudimentary steps everyone can take:

    1. Take multiple photos of the piece; they will prove valuable during your search. They will also provide evidence of its condition in case of damage. You might want to take some actual old-school film photos and store them safely.

    2. Measure it, weigh it and be specific about recording your measurements. You'll need to refer to them later.

    3. Write down what the piece is made of.

    4. How was it made (carved, etched, cast, etc.)?

    5. What is the piece's title and what is its subject?

    6. Is there is signature or are there initials on the piece?

    7. Look for numbers, marks, inscriptions and damage (either repaired or not) on all sides of the piece.

    8. Find any dates.

    9. Locate any stamps (these are often on the back of a painting).

    10. Boil down all of this information to its essentials. Write a bare-bones description of it that you can refer to when you're on the phone with someone who's helping you, or take with you when you do research.

    11. If you have the name of the artist, and want a quick, sketchy introduction to her work, try Artcyclopedia. But remember that careful research doesn't rely on only one source.

Next: Step away from the computer.

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From your Guide: Nadine Granoff, professional art researcher, locates artistic needles in prestigious Haystacks otherwise known as the Library of Congress, Archives of American Art, and the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. She's been happily doing so for the past ten years. She may be reached at her email address.

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