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5 questions you should ask about the painting your buying

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What to ask when buying a painting?

The start of another three-part series: What questions you should or could be asking when you buy painting. You might be buying a painting for the first time or the hundredth time. These are questions you should ask about the painting this week. Next week the questions you should be asking about the artist and the gallery.


Before you ask these questions, you have already answered the question of whether or not you want to own this painting. Today’s questions are about care and informed decisions about where to place the painting in your office or home. These are also questions art historians need to answer 100 years from now. So it has a dual function. As an Art Historian, I am obviously biased and informed by my background. If you can think of any other questions that is pertinent, please let us know in the comments below.


Questions about the painting itself

Most of the information you need would be on a little paper next to the painting or sculpture. Like when it was made, who the artist is, what it is made of and also maybe why it was made. These are a few questions that can help you better take care of the work after you have bought it. These questions should be enquired after respectfully. Make it abundantly clear that you asking these questions on how to best take care of the painting if you would buy it. Questions 1 and 2 you can skip if you know how to care for your painting. Questions 3, 4 and 5 are just to clarify exactly what you can expect in the care for these paintings. None of these questions has a right or wrong answer. No matter the answer it does not diminish or add value to the object in the now. It is valuable information for later as well as how to make sure there is a later for your painting.



1. What material is it made of?

You should know what medium it is made of, as it is usually labelled. However, this is an important question if it is a mixed media piece. As what it is made from and how can significantly influence where you can place your painting in your house or office. 


For water paintings and drawings, it is usually a good idea to never put it in a space that gets full sunlight for a long period of the day. Unless you have added extra UV filtering foils on the windows or painting frame. Both are costliers, than simply putting a painting outside of direct sunlight.


Oil paintings will be able to withstand a lot of unfiltered light, but aquarelles and drawings and paper canvasses will disintegrate alarmingly fast in direct sunlight over time.


BONUS: some sculptures can easily be placed outside and stand wind and weather. However, many sculptures are placed on their pedestals with an iron rod, which when wet oxidises and expands, which can result in fractures in the sculpture and even break the sculpture in two.


The light delicately breaks through this painting by Marko Klomp. It is lovevly painting. However, putting a painting opposite such large windows in real life is very damaging to the art.

2. Does the painting have special care instructions?

In mixed media painting, there should be clear instructions on where the painting can be placed. For some people, it is logical that you can not place everything just anywhere. And for other people, it seems needlessly nitpicky that there are explicit instructions in how you can or cannot display a painting in your own home or office. It’s about transparent communication. Oil paintings easily stay beautiful for several generations, before it needs care. With acrylics it depends and watercolours are very delicate. And mixed media pieces can either be tricky, or just need a bit of extra dusting. 


3. Who has owned it before then?

Has the painting hung in someone’s house? Has the artist hung it in their own home, or at a family member? What effect did the object have in their house? Has it been stored in a shed or under a bed? Has someone bought it and returned it. This has nothing to do with the quality of the painting. Sometimes art is sold and people simply have not paid for the painting. For very expensive artwork and known collectors, some artwork has not been paid 2 years after the sale. This question is more about the provenance of a painting, even if you are the first owner, or buying from a blue-chip gallery.

Is there another painting underneath the one we see on the canvas? X-Rayed flower. Photo:  Mathew Schwartz / Unsplash

4. Where has this painting been exhibited?

Has the painting been exhibited at a museum, art fair or in any other exhibition? Has the painting been part of an art loan project? Again this does not diminish the value. It is about the trajectory of the art has taken, before it has found its forever home (as some American Artist call it). Art can and will last a very long time, so the chance of it having multiple owners throughout its life, it is very normal. As a collector, it is part of knowing your paintings history. But also, if the artist is very famous or becomes very famous, you might be asked to loan the painting yourself to a museum or exhibition on a later date.


5. Has the object been damaged and/or repaired?

Paintings can easily be damaged, it does not have to be the end of the world. Better yet, it hardly always is. It might need a touch up by the artist, or becomes part of the overall look. Maybe the artist dropped it, maybe someone bumped it off the wall. If the painting is repaired, you usually do not see it. It is more something you will see on the back. Again not, a dealbreaker, broken or very damaged art that can not be repaired will not be offered for sale. But it is good to know before hand. Not to drive the price down, but to be mindful of the paintings history and damages. 


Bonus question: Is there another painting under the painting we see now?

The most exciting discoveries in Art History are figuring out that there are other paintings under the one we know today. Maybe the artist even has pictures of the process. Ask if you could have copies of these pictures to store with the painting.


Is there other questions you should ask about the painting in particular? Let me know in the comments. Next week we will list questions you can ask the artist and after that the gallery owner.



Tascha Sciarone

"The smiling Art Historian"

Smiling Art Historian Tascha Sciarone in a red dress

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