Another key component to consider when buying art is quality – or, where on a scale of 1 – 10 does any specific work stand in relation to their oeuvre. During your art world journey, at any given time, there will be many available works. If you have focused in on a single artist, make sure that any of the works you are considering rank among their best – not just the best that are currently available. Let’s face it, sometimes what is “currently available” is a bunch of crap, especially when you are dealing with historical works of art!
Always keep in mind that even great artists had/have bad days and produce mediocre or poor-quality works. You should also note that some available works may be nothing more than a sketch or study and were never created with the intention of being sold; these were usually created in the development stages of more complex pieces. So you may be wondering, how did these works become available? Good question:
For my example, I will focus on the 19th-century. During that period, it was common to have a studio sale after an artist’s death. The purpose of these sales was twofold:
1. To let the art world know that the output from this artist was over.
2. To sell off everything that remained in the artist’s estate to benefit the surviving relatives.
While these sales, at times, did include fully finished works, most often they were filled with unfinished pieces, sketches, and preparatory studies. Please do not get me wrong, some of these preparatory works are now considered important works on their own, but here again you need to know the best from the rest. You also need to be aware that there were times when unfinished works from a studio sale, were finished by another artist. Yes, we have seen this. Now the question is – who do you attribute the painting too? Guess it all depends on how much of the original artist’s work is still visible.
If you widen your focus to a period or movement (Barbizon, Impressionist, Realist, Abstract, etc.), rather than a specific artist (Monet, Boudin, Corot, Dupré, etc.), you will have an easier time finding quality works simply because there should be a greater supply of good material to choose from. However, when broadening your scope, it is even more important to do your research and look at as many examples from the different artists of that period as possible. See which works have been heralded as the best so you have something to compare the currently available works too.
Distinguishing between good, mediocre, and poor quality works is not something you can learn from reading a textbook. It comes from years of looking and studying the physical works of art (not just photographs). In addition, you need to know which periods and subject matters of an artist are considered their best. Then you need to determine when a specific work was created, how it relates to other works from that period, and then you can begin to determine if it is a good quality example.
You will find that almost every gallery, dealer, auction room, etc. you visit will tell you that their works are ‘the best’, ‘major examples’, or even ‘masterpieces’. But as we all know, this cannot be the case – not every painting is ‘the best’, etc. If you do a little homework, you will begin to learn which dealers/galleries/auction rooms really offer great quality works on a consistent basis and those that are just selling a name (or signature).
It is also very important to remember that the best examples of an artist’s work will be more expensive than the mediocre ones. But as we always say… the best will always be the best and a second-rate work will always be just that.