One day, a youthful Joseph Duveen, who would go on to become the world's greatest art dealer, decided that his uncle Henry was not realizing maximum profit potential out of the family's wealthiest client, John Pierpont Morgan. Instead of presenting the banking magnate with only the six top quality miniature paintings their business had obtained, he decided to mix in twenty-four less inspired works. The avaricious young man scattered the fine paintings amongst the not-so-fine. Upon entering the Duveen's shop, Morgan glanced quickly at the table of miniatures. "How much are these?" he said. Young Duveen, already sensing a kill, named his price for the lot. Without hesitation, Morgan picked out the six prize paintings and slid them down the deep pockets of his wool coat. Then, calculating out loud, the banker divided Joseph's total by thirty, multiplied by six, paid his declared price, and took his leave.
Perplexed that he had undersold the paintings, Joseph Duveen went to his uncle and tried to explain what had gone wrong.
"What went wrong, Joe," Henry said, "is that you are only a boy. It takes a man to deal with J.P. Morgan."
Imagine that you were put into the same position as J. P. Morgan-presented with thirty paintings. Could you pick out the six masterpieces? How about three? Most of us would answer no. "I'm not a painting connoisseur!" you might say. Neither was J.P. Morgan, at first. My point is, good paintings show up in antique shops, estate sales, and auctions in this area every week. Many are purchased for bargain prices, and not just by dealers. In fact, faced with the same choice as Mr. Morgan, many book smart painting "experts" might select the six worst paintings out of the bunch. They might not have a "good eye." The world of art does not belong solely to dealers and wealthy collectors. Old paintings represent, by far, the greatest value in antiques. Fortunes are made in art every week. Be careful, but do not be intimidated. You may have a better grasp of the subject than you know. Here's a few tips to get started.
1. Study and purchase paintings in old surface. Many paintings being offered for sale, even in major auction houses and galleries, are forgeries. Works that have been cleaned(of crackled, yellowed old varnish), and revarnished(so that they look glassy), and relined(canvas mounted on a new stretcher), and reframed, should be purchased only through an expert. Even then, have your expert look for works in untouched condition when he/she can find them. Fixed-up paintings, even if they are right, loose a degree integrity. Even damaged paintings should be considered. Anything can be fixed except a work that has been over-cleaned.
2. Train your eye. Visit museums. Attend lectures. Read books about art. Paint! Study bad art. Most people make the mistake of studying only great works. To discern a swan from a duck one must first be able to recognize a duck. With each picture, ask yourself: Does it have style? Is the artist's character and special way of seeing things represented? Is there poetry to the work or is it a routine effort? Does it excite the senses? Is the composition balanced? Does the work flow like poured honey or does it appear traced and contrived? Is the subject matter interesting or beautiful?
3. Purchase a good price guide and signature guide. My favorites are R.J. Davenports Art Reference & Price Guide, and Faulk's Dictionary of Signatures & Monograms of American & European Artists.