Recently I discussed the issues of cracks in the paint along with the possible causes and remedies. After that article a few individuals asked me to comment on what they termed more serious problems with works they own … namely holes or tears in the canvas.
Now before you panic and say “my painting is ruined and worthless because it has a hole in it”, it is important to remember that the degree of the damage and where it is located are really the important factors when trying to determine loss, if any, of value.
Being in the business for more than 25 years, I have seen almost every kind of hole/tear one could imagine … from pinhole size holes, to large tears (70 inches and more), to paintings that were actually cut in two. Some of these works would be considered total write-offs, while others had suffered minor devaluations, and others really had no appreciable loss in value.
As you read this article please keep in mind that the size of a damage and how it affects the work’s value is all relative. A five inch tear on a 6 x 8 inch canvas is very different from a five inch tear on a 60 x 80 inch canvas.
Let’s start with the smallest of the damages – obviously those are the small holes and tears. It is widely known that the artist Edouard Cortes made a small pinhole in his canvas in order to create the vanishing point – the spot where all the lines of perspective meet. When you take one of his paintings and hold it towards a light you will see this hole (please keep in mind that it is not something he did in every painting and should not be used, in and of itself, to determine the works authenticity). Over the years we have acquired paintings by Cortes that have had a small patch on the back (a small piece of canvas that is affixed to back of the original canvas for support) … and usually that patch corresponds to the location where the pinhole would be located. It appears that some restorer decided to fix this ‘damage’. I find this very funny because this shows that the restorer had very little knowledge about the artist’s work and that the ‘hole’, which was actually created by the artist, should have been left alone. However, there are times when a work does have a small hole or tear that was not created by the artist. These small damages are usually easy to repair … often times a tiny amount of BEVA glue can be placed on the back of the canvas and once dried the front can be filled and inpainted. In certain instances a small patch will be used to reinforce the damage; however many times the glue is more than enough to support the hole/repair. Once completed the work should look as good as new. These minor damages will have little, if any, affect on the painting’s value.
Next there are those works which have larger tears or holes; here, depending on the location of the damage, the value may or may not be altered. As most of our readers will be familiar with the works of Daniel Ridgway Knight I will use his work to illustrate this. Imagine one of the artist’s paintings that feature a single figure standing in a landscape … in case you are having trouble, here is a link to one on our web site: The Flower Girl (26 x 21 inches). Please note that this particular work was in excellent condition when we sold it and I am only using it for illustration purposes.
Now imagine a long tear, razor thin, in the upper left corner (sky) that measured 6 inches. Due to the fact that the damage was in a very minor area of the painting and that once restored it would be almost imperceptible to the naked eye, the loss of value would be minimal at most. If that same damage took place through the face and body of the figure, then you might begin to see some depreciation in value. But again, this all depends on how the work was restored and how much inpainting was required to fix it. I have seen instances where a painting sustained a tear, and once the opening was closed, the two sides fit perfectly together and no inpainting was necessary … unless you knew the work had been torn, you would never be able to tell … so, was the value altered? That will all depend on who you ask.
Now let’s imagine a 6 inch hole in the same locations and the piece is missing. While this type of damage will have a greater impact on the work’s value, I am sure you can guess that the decrease in value with a large loss in the sky (background) will be less than the painting with a similar loss in the central figure. In fact, the painting with the loss in the central area will, more than likely, have a huge decrease in value … and depending on which parts of the main area were affected, might actually be considered a total write-off. Remember, that people are buying a Ridgway Knight not only for the beauty of the whole image, but his technical ability to paint the human figure … if a large part of the figure is no longer the work of Ridgway Knight, where is the value?
What about a 6 inch hole and the piece is still attached? If most of the original paint is still intact and the restorer can successfully repair the work, then loss of value will be less. Once the work has been completely repaired a more accurate assessment of value can be made.
Finally, what about works that sustained severe tears or were actually cut in two? Years ago I went to view an auction in London and in a small glass case were two paintings by the American marine artist James E. Buttersworth (the image is on our web site: American Packets in Coastal Waters). They looked like an interesting ‘pair’ of paintings … the initial problem in my mind was that only one was signed. After I opened the case and carefully examined the works I noticed that they were not a pair of paintings, but in fact one painting that was cut in half! When looking at the tacking edges (the sides of a canvas that are used to hold the painting on its stretcher and are usually left blank) of both works you could not only see paint, but there was a boat that was cut in half … and when I put the two works back to back, they lined up perfectly. We bought the paintings and gave them to our conservator. While it took months to repair the piece, when finished, the fact that the painting had once been cut in two was imperceptible. The painting was acquired by a major collector of maritime paintings …aside from its beauty; one of the determining factors for its purchase was the story behind the restoration of this fairly important painting by Buttersworth.
Now I am sure you are wondering: did that kind of damage affect the work’s value? Yes, the painting was sold for far less than a similar work in perfect condition … but the painting was not worthless. The two main ships in the painting were in great condition and the ship that was visible on the tacking edges was a very small paddle-wheeler in the distance.
Remember, there are many paintings by artists that have been damaged over the years and while one of the main factors used to determine a painting’s value is condition, just because a work has had a tear or hole, does not mean it is a lost cause and should be tossed in the trash. There are many instances when works of art need to be restored/ conserved for art’s sake and they are often worth something to someone.
A Little More Personal PR
Just in case you are interested, Fine Art Connoisseur magazine (formally Plein Air Magazine) has published one of my newsletters in their March 2006 issue – What’s in a Name? Tracking A Painting’s Original Title (pg. 32).
Gallery Updates: We are very pleased to inform you that since our last sales update the gallery has sold: an important Salon painting by Daniel Ridgway Knight; Jean B.C. Corot’s La baie de somme; Louis Aston Knight’s Cottages by the River and Along the River, Beaumont-le-Roger; Henry J. Breuer’s Coast of Carmel; Charles d’Entraygue’s The Parade; Joseph Caraud’s The Ball of Yarn; Adolph Dillen’s The Artist and His Studio; one work by Heidi Coutu; two paintings by Edouard Cortes; four paintings by Antoine Blanchard; and five paintings by Ugo Giannini.
Web Site Updates: New works by the following artists have been added to the web site: Arthur J. Elsley, Fritz Zuber-Buhler, Louis Aston Knight, Edouard Cortes, Junn Roca, Sally Swatland and Ugo O. Giannini. In the weeks to come we will be adding paintings by Eugene Boudin, Jean B.C. Corot, Emile Munier, and Edouard Cortes.