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How to Examine Art and Photographs
You’ve heard the expression, “A picture is worth 1,000 words.” We use it when talking about all kinds of objects of art, whether they are photographs, paintings, sculptures, or even, pieces of pottery. But how do you know whether a photo or artwork is genuine Old Master or a fake? Here’s how to take a closer look and find out the truth.
When our history detectives come face to face with a work of art, they:
- Examine its physical attributes for any sign of provenance. (That’s just a fancy term for a signature, studio imprint, copyright, or title.)
- Use basic scientific analysis (e.g. UV light, a magnifying glass) to look for alterations.
- Research the era the work might have come from.
- Learn more about the artist or photographer and compare the piece to his or her body of work.
- Consult with experts who can shed light on the artwork and its place in history.
Watch Our History Detectives at Work
History Detective Wes Cowan appraises a wooden cane topped with a coiled snake made of bronze or copper.
History Detective Wes Cowan appraises a drawing of the Gold Rush and tries to determine whether it is by the Gold
Rush photographer I.W. Baker
Do It Yourself Investigation
Whether you find a photo or artwork in the attic or at a rummage sale, how do you know what you have? You don’t have to be an expert to undertake a basic investigation. Just follow these steps to get started.
Step One: Date the Object
Begin with an objective study of the physical attributes. Write down what you see. Consider the size of the photograph, painting, sculpture, or artwork, the coloring, the frame or border (if any). Look for any sign of provenance. For example, if you are dealing with a photograph, try to identify what era it came from.
A piece of writing paper placed in front of the surface will be reflected in reverse. They often are tarnished around the edges.
If you take an ambrotype out of the case and hold it up to the light, you should be able to see through it, as it was printed on glass. Often, black paint on the back of the photo has begun to peel or crack.
Also called a "ferrotype" or "melainotype," a quick way to tell if a tintype is real is if a magnet will be attracted to it.
Step Two: Seek Details
If the object came to you through family channels, record the known history: Where was it purchased? For how much? Write down any interesting stories about how it was acquired.
If you have a piece with provenance (find out more about provenance in the glossary and this video), take the name of the photographer or artist to a local library or do a search online. Are there primary source citations from the period, linking the photograph to the time and/or subject?
If it's a print or other reproduction, when did the original appear? Where is it? What can you learn about it? If it's a numbered print, is it within the documented range of recorded prints?
The following websites can be helpful starting points:
Smithsonian Museums Research Center
Watson: Metropolitan Museum of Art Online Database
Civil War Art Collection
British Museum Online Database
National Gallery of Art
Step Three: Research the Artist
Was the alleged photographer or artist known? If so you're really lucky, you may find information on auctions or sales of that photographer’s work. You may also want to take the image (or a good copy) of the work to a public or university library. Ask the librarian for resources and reference works that could help you learn more. For example, if the piece includes a signature or initials, ask to see a dictionary of artist signatures. You might also want to compare the art work to the artist’s body of work.
If you’re researching a well-known artist, Artnet has a comprehensive listing of artist biographies, with samples and timelines of their work. This can be helpful if your are researching a well-known artist. Want to learn more about a local photographer? Craig's Daguerrian Registry has lists of many American photographers from 1850-1960. Or, if you’re more interested in art from a certain period or movement, try Art Promote or Art Movements.
Step Four: Analyze the Data
You might need the help of an expert to evaluate a work as authentic or by a particular artist. Try speaking with an art teacher at your school or contact a local museum for suggestions. An expert would ask the following questions:
- Is the background consistent with the subject?
- Does the format fit the technologies of the time?
- Can basic scientific analysis show alterations?
Now, it’s your turn. Print and use our handy checklist to investigate a photo or artwork. Ready, Set, Go!...
PS: Some Parting Tips from the History Detective Experts
- Are you sure that photo is really a photo? You should not be able to see printing “dots” when you look with a magnifying glass.
- Protect your photos: Keep them out of direct sunlight and away from hot and cold extremes. Wrap the union case in a soft cloth to protect it from damage.
- Use a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe to look for small details, such as fresh paint in the cracks of paintings.
- Use UV or “black” light to look for signs of painting repair or alterations. An overall green glow may signal the use of a masking varnish.
- Watch out for paper, new or old, glued over the back of a painting. It may hide condition problems, inconsistencies, or manipulations.
- Think it’s the painting of a famous artist? See if there's a catalogue raisonné (a comprehensive catalogue of artworks by an artist) for the official listing of all the artist's works, the medium they were created in and the history-or provenance-of ownership.