Invaluable Guide to Buying Paintings

"Women Mending Nets in the Dunes" by Kyu-Hak Lee, mixed media on board, 27.5 x 37 in., Guarisco Gallery

Painting is among the oldest and most popular mediums in the art market today. The earliest paintings were found in caves and date back to more than 30,000 years ago. While the materials and styles have advanced since then, paintings continue to adorn the walls of homes and offices around the world.

Paint is created by mixing colored pigment with a binder. Options range from natural plant oils and crushed minerals to synthetic products produced for commercial use, such as house paint. Pigments ground in water, such as those used for tempera and watercolor, tend to be lighter and less transparent than those ground in oil, unless spread thinly.

Wild Goats in the Mountain” by Rosa Bonheur, oil on canvas, 41 x 47 in., Guarisco Gallery

Analyzing a painting’s iconography – its visual symbols or clues – helps to determine whether the narrative depicts history, portraiture, genre scenes, landscape, or still life subject matter. Modern and contemporary paintings become more difficult to interpret, as many artists choose abstract styles and experimental media.

Among the world’s growing community of art collectors is a select few who are shattering sales records. The highest price paid for a single painting occurred during a private sale in early 2015, when Paul Gauguin’s 1892 piece “Nafea faa ipoipo? (When will you marry?)” was purchased for $300 million. Just three months later, Christie’s New York announced the sale of Pablo Picasso’s 1955 “Les Femmes d’Alger (Women of Algiers)” for $179.4 million – the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

Recent ballooning figures reflect a long-recorded trend that closely ties paintings sales to the cyclical expansion (and contraction) of the economy.

A Brief History

Old Masters, or artists born before 1760, reinvented painting during the Renaissance period. The Italian painters are known to have studied and used linear and atmospheric perspective in their works, while some Northern artists developed photorealist treatments of still lifes and portraits. Masterpieces from this time period are most often held by museums or long-time owners, so quality pieces are more rare at auction.

L’entrée de la maison de Belle-aux-Dames” by H. Claude Pissarro, oil on canvas, 28 x 32.5 in., Guarisco Gallery

Works by early modern and Impressionist masters like Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne are among the most sought-after paintings by 19th-century artists. During this time, the technological development of portable tubes of paint enabled artists to paint en plein air, or outside their studios.

The period between 1860 and 1920 is one of the most popular periods for collectors of Western art. Leading artists include Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso, and Mark Rothko.

Post-war and contemporary art is experiencing a boom in the art market. After WWII, art movements fractured to reveal a multitude of responses to the death and destruction in Europe and Japan. This led to Abstract Expressionism, Pop art, and more. Among the most coveted post-war paintings are works by Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter.

Secondary market sales of contemporary paintings breaking historical records within the art world at large – not only within the category of paintings. Leaders include Jean-Michel Basquiat, Peter Doig, and Christopher Wool.

Painting Terms to Know

Collectors should build a basic vocabulary regarding the art of painting:

  • Support: the physical structure on which the painting is executed (i.e. wooden panel, stone, canvas, paper, etc.). If canvas was used, a second layer, or lining, may be affixed to the back to later add physical support.
  • Preparatory Layers: in the case of a painting on canvas, a product made of gelatin or glue – known as a size – is used to influence the fabric’s absorbency. A primer made from a mixture of plaster or chalk and water prepares the support to hold the paint. A final white basecoat layer of gesso is often applied before painting begins.
  • Tempera: best represented in the luminous paintings of the 14th and 15th centuries, the pigment is mixed with water and egg.

Mt. Fugi” by Niimi Sei, early 20th century, watercolor on paper, 10 x 13 in., Mary Ran Gallery

  • Watercolor: made of finely ground pigment bound with gum arabic or glue, its application can appear both transparent and opaque. The most common opaque watercolor material is gouache.
  • Oil paint: first widely adopted by 16th-century artists for its transparency, ease of manipulation, and rich colors. It can produce an incredibly smooth surface but can also be mixed with sand and other coarse materials to create texture. Oil paintings can take days, months, or even years to dry depending on the thickness of the paint as well as its chemical makeup.

Original painting by Alfredo Cabrera, acrylic on canvas, 15.7 x 15.7 in., Saks & Welk

  • Acrylic paint: introduced in the 1950s, acrylics were quickly embraced for their ability to look as matte as gouache or as translucent as oil paint. They are bound with a synthetic acrylic polymer emulsion.
  • Brushes: several brushes of a different shape, size, and stiffness can be used to create a single painting. Some artists choose more unconventional tools, such as palette knifes, rags, sponges, fingers, and spray cans. Well-known Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock found that housepainter’s brushes worked best to drip, splatter, fling, and smear paint onto his mural-sized canvases, which he laid out on the floor.
  • Varnish: the role of this solid, relatively transparent layer of resin is to protect the paint surface and intensify the colors; however, solutions made with natural materials tend to discolor or darken with age. Conservators can fix this problem by removing and replacing the old varnish with a synthetic product.
  • Scale: the size of a painting may speak to its period of origin. Large-scale works grew in popularity at the height of the Paris Salon between 1748 and 1890. The annual or biennial art event exhibited hundreds (if not thousands) of paintings at a time. Limited gallery space and high demand forced many exhibited works to be hung wherever space allowed – even high on walls (and far away from a viewer’s ideal vantage point). As a result, artists increased the size of their supports. Soon artists saw that selling smaller works to the bourgeois for their homes was a more lucrative business. These easel paintings maintained their ranks until the Abstract Expressionists circled back to large-scale canvases
  • Markings: artist signatures and dates of completion may be found on either the front or back of paintings. These markings help establish authenticity, but not all artists sign their work. Therefore, collectors should look at any labels or stamps on the back of the support or its frame. These can provide information about the origin and age of the artist’s materials as well as about previous sales and owners.

Building Your Collection

Untitled by Christopher Wool, flashe on board, 14 x 14 in., Sotheby’s

Paintings can comprise of an entire art collection or act as complementary additions to an eclectic group of works. When planning for your next purchase, consider asking yourself the following:

  • To which paintings am I most attracted?
  • Which artists, styles, and movements am I most interested in learning about?
  • What is my budget?
  • How much time and money am I willing to the search process?
  • Is this painting a building block toward a bigger collection or a single piece to complement a domestic space?

“Take note of what you are drawn to and take time to train your eye. Visit museums – they provide a great context for the artwork of contemporary artists by placing them in a chronology. Attend art fairs – they create an environment where you can see the work of contemporary artists being promoted by gallerists across a large spectrum,” advised Alexandra Dubodel, Associate Specialist and Curator at Shapiro Auctions. “Above all, take the time to educate yourself.”

Establishing & Maintaining Value


Conservation is essential to maintaining the value of your paintings over time. The overall goal of conservation is the preservation of a painting in its original state. Before the 1950s, restoration techniques were potentially invasive and sometimes resulted in damage.

Present day conservators consider aesthetics as well as the painting’s original materials when selecting their methods. The idea is to maintain the integrity of the artist’s work and avoid disruption of the aging original materials. Therefore, the artwork undergoes the minimum treatment necessary with as many reversible materials as possible. This helps in the event that improved techniques for conservation later become available.

The Uninvited Guest” by Giuseppe Castiglione, late 1800s, oil on canvas, 36 x 64 in., Mary Ran Gallery

National and international organizations of professional conservators, such as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works, can verify a conservator’s basic qualifications.

Copies, Reproductions, and Fakes

Copying paintings made by other artists – often those already revered for their work – is a legitimate, long-established practice for record (especially before the advent of photography) and for study. They are certainly works of art themselves and may even be nearly as old as the originals. For example, Rembrandt encouraged his pupils to learn technique by recreating his own works. If such a painting comes to market today and it can be proven to have originated in Rembrandt’s classroom, the replica’s value could be quite great. On the other hand, buyers must beware of contemporary forgers, who employ old materials and clever techniques to fool the viewer.

Often, paintings are reproduced as posters or prints by museums. These items often hold little value, unless they are an addition by the artist.


All works of art should be insured by a company that specializes in art insurance. Coverage not only protects your investment but also supports the value of the work should you decide to sell the painting or donate it to a museum.

It is also good practice to have the work reappraised every three years to ensure that it is insured at an appropriate value based on the current market.

Care and Display

Before hanging and displaying paintings, make sure that any issues with the frame are fixed. Sometimes, the supports or wedges used to prevent canvas from sinking or sagging need to be replaced.

The best place to hang a painting is on a wall with a stud where you can securely anchor the wall hooks. This location should be away from any heat source, in a place of relatively stable and reasonable humidity and not in direct sunlight.

If you choose to illuminate your work with additional lighting fixtures, do not to use lamps that are too hot. LEDs are the optimal choice because they produce minimal heat, do not emit UV or IR waves, and are energy efficient.

Provided that there are no signs of loose or flaking paint, a painting may be dusted using a clean, soft, natural-hair artists’ brush. The artwork should be positioned upright at a forward angle so the dust falls away from its face. Never use dry or moist dust cloths, stiff bristle brushes, or feather dusters to dust a painting.

Tips for Buying Online

You can now easily buy paintings online from an online auction or gallery. Buyer take warning, however, as sales are often final and you will likely not have an opportunity to inspect the item in person. As such, follow these guidelines to ensure a quality purchase:

Shimmering Light” by Elaina Sullivan, 2015, oil on canvas, 42 x 68 in., Voltz Clarke Contemporary

1. Request a condition report & other identifying documents.

  • What does the documentation prove? Are the sources credible?
  • If applicable, who authenticated this artist’s work? Who paid for the authentication? What warranty is extended to you in the case that the authentication is later revealed to be false?
  • What is the history of the item, and who has owned it?
  • Has it been altered, or is it fully intact?
  • What damages or restorations exist?

For some widely studied artists, authentication can be made through a catalogue raisonné, which is an encyclopedia compiled by a third party of all known works in the artist’s body of work. Works featured in these comprehensive listings are often illustrated and designated a serial number.

Recognized authorities on particular artists or representatives from their estates may also authenticate paintings. Just be sure to consider the credibility and motivations of the investigator.

2. Register to bid several days in advance.

Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid and be approved by the specific auction house you are interested in bidding with. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.

3. Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or galleries.

  • How does the auction house handle taxes?
  • Will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer or retail price?
  • How will the item be shipped?
  • How long do you have to pay for the item?
  • How do you contact the auction house, dealer or gallery with questions?

4. Ask follow-up questions.

If you have a question, ask it, and if the answer is not satisfactory to you, do not bid or buy.

5. Research past prices.

Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.

6. Don’t bid unless you’re sure.

All sales at an auction are final. Once you have successfully bid and won your object, the auction house or gallery can provide you with a list of good art handling or shipping companies to ship your item.

Additional Resources

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic & Artistic Works

Artprice: The World’s Leader in Art Market Information

California Resale Royalty Act

Goldman, Paul. Looking at Prints, Drawings and Watercolours: A Guide to Technical Terms. 2nd ed. London: British Museum Press in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006.

Kirsh, Andrea and Rustin S. Levenson. Seeing Through Paintings: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Taylor, Joshua C. Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts. 2nd ed. University of Chicago, 1981.

Stallabrass, Julian. Contemporary Art: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University press, 2004.