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Condition, condition, condition. — Blue Heron Fine Art Blog

Condition, condition, condition.

by Jim Puzinas on September 16, 2009

As an art dealer, I look at a number of paintings each week. Recently, I was reminded of how important condition is to the value of a painting.  It sounded like a nice painting by a well known early 20th century American impressionist. In the same family since 1923. Original frame, original bill of sale, etc. Upon visual inspection, however, a different picture emerged.  A fair amount of previous restoration had taken place and a number of areas had been filled and painted over. As disappointed as I was, it just wasn’t good enough to offer to my clients. 

What does condition mean?  Condition of a painting refers to any and all changes to a painting that have occurred since the artist finished the work.  Most common condition issues involve paintings that have been previously “cleaned” to remove their old layer of yellowed and dirty varnish. Often times an overzealous or inexperienced person who has cleaned the painting may have damaged the surface of the paint or cut into one of several glazes the artist may have used. This leaves a painting that is usually described as “overcleaned “, resulting in thin areas that expose canvas weave or missing paint.  One 19th century painting I reviewed had so much glazing and paint removed from the sky that the clouds which had been intially sketched in pencil by the artist before he applied his first brushstroke were evident to the naked eye.  An overcleaned painting affects value dramatically,sometimes eliminating the work entirely from consideration by most serious dealers.

Other common condition issues result from improper storage or physical damage. Holes develop from a puncture of some sort, cracks usually from an improperly stretched or loose canvas. Flaking can be an indication of  moisture  damage or improper hanging or storage. Depending on the location and their severity, holes, cracks, flaking etc valuation is affected. 

 If the painting has lost enough canvas support to lie flat, another support structure, usually in the form of an additional piece of canvas, is affixed to the back of the original. This is called a “lining” of the painting. Although this does affect the value and desirability of the painting to many dealers and some collectors, if done well, a lining need not eliminate the painting entirely from consideration. Interestingly enough, I know of many dealers who want to find a painting in original “unlined” condition, only to have the painting “lined” by their conservator afterward, calling into question as to just how much value is lost for a painting in lined condition.

Assuming that older paintings from the 19th century would have more condition issues associated with them than paintings of the mid 20th century, would be a good presumption. However artist preparation and materials used in many mid 20th century paintings, have led to numerous and significant condition problems with paintings less than fifty years old!

Condition is to a painting as location is to real estate.  Buying a  painting in poor condition is like buying a nice home in the wrong neighborhood. If you want to preserve your investment, you should remember the mantra, “Condition, condition, condition!”

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