My mom found a painting at Goodwill over the weekend and she’s convinced it’s a masterpiece. She paid $7.99 for it. She thinks she’s hit the lottery and has been obsessively scouring the Internet searching for a signature match and similar images. I don’t have much expertise in this realm. I make installationy/sculpturey/video art and don’t really have the eye to tell much about paintings, but I looked at it and I’m not even sure that it’s a real painting. It might be on some kind of paper or board that’s in really bad condition around the edges. It doesn’t seem like canvas—but I’m not sure. She wants to take it to an appraiser, but I don’t know if she should. I don’t want to be a jerk and rain on her parade, but I don’t think this is the real deal. But, what if it is? Who am I to say? Maybe we are sitting on a fortune! Do you have any advice for me? Should we take it to an appraiser just to see?
Uncertain in Asheville
Ah, hitting the art lottery! Don’t we all dream of that? Finding a Picasso in the attic of our newly purchased home? Watching $2 turn into $2 million? It’s endlessly intoxicating, and the more you think about it, the more you believe it’s possible, that it could even happen to you.
The whole notion of the Thrift Store Monet, as I like to refer to it, has been grossly misconstrued in this country. Why? Because America loves that kind of story; it’s what we’re made of, it’s on our cultural DNA. Rags to riches, amen.
So when a Thrift Store Monet story comes around, which is so incredibly rare—and half the time it ends up being a hoax—we eat it up. EAT IT UP. Like when this woman bought Ilya Bolotowsky’s abstract painting Vertical Diamond at a Goodwill for $9.99 and sold it at auction for over $34,375; or when Marcia Fuqua supposedly “found” a Renoir at a flea market in West Virgina.
Why do we eat it up? Because we love the idea of easy money. Of course we do. We love the thought that we could possibly become very rich without having to do much work at all! Instead of actually being concerned with art or history or preserving our rich cultural heritage, we like to hear stories about getting rich quick; that’s what interests us. And that is a terrible thing because it perpetuates the culture-crushing mindset that art = $$$$$.
I cannot tell you how many people have come into the galleries I’ve worked at over the years dragging some hunk-of-junk under their arm with a heartbreakingly bright glimmer of hope in their eyes. They look at me, I look at them, they look at me, and then I have to say the one thing they don’t want to hear. “This is not a Rembrandt. I’m sorry.”
More often than not, the “masterpiece painting” is a poster print that’s been cut and framed to look like a piece of actual art.
“But it’s got Rembrandt’s signature!” they say, their voice cracking ever so slightly. “It also has pixelation,” I say, pointing to the tiny digitally printed specs. I can see the dollar signs fade from their pupils for a moment, then slowly light back up.
“Well, what could I get for it?” they ask, hoping that even though they won’t be netting the milliondollars as they originally anticipated, maybe they can at least flip it for a hundo, or at least an Andy, you know—for their efforts and astute eye for historically important art.
“Well,” I have to say to them, “considering the multitude of chips in the frame and the water damage on the paper,” I say as I point to the large brown stain covering the southeastern hemisphere of the work, “I’m afraid you’d be lucky to give this piece away.”
And that’s how, more often than not, that scenario goes.
Or say it is a real painting, but there’s no signature or label, it just looks well-done, like maybe a talented painter made it. Well even then, you’ve got very little to work with. Without any kind of proof or provenance—a documented trail of ownership—I really doubt anyone is going to put in the hours of research it would take to find out who painted it, when they painted it, and how much it might go for at auction, assuming it isn’t just a copycat painting made by some college student in their sophomore painting class in the 1980s.
Most appraisers would not even give this kind of stuff the time of day. Some gallery workers will humor you, to be courteous. But unless you have some real, credible evidence that what you’re holding is an original work by an important artist, I advise that you don’t approach a gallery with Goodwill art. It’s not fun to have that conversation; it’s not fun to smash pipedreams. In fact, it’s sad.
Additionally, you should be able to tell if it’s an actual painting or not, honeybun. Touch it: if it’s got a real paint texture, you’ll feel it. If it’s smooth and printed via machine, you’ll feel it. If it’s on canvas, you should be able to tell on the back. If it’s framed, unframe it and see what you’re really working with. Inspect it yourself before taking it to a professional. I say this to save you the time and embarrassment of that whole situation.
That said, if you do, by some chance, agree with your mother that it might be a significant work of art—call a gallery/curator/whomever beforehand and make an appointment with them. Don’t just show up at their door with a big-ass, grungy painting in your hands. Once, a guy showed up to a place of my employment with what he thought was a Vermeer painting; and he had it locked in a silver briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist. Handcuffed!
Needless to say, it wasn’t a Vermeer, and he came off as a complete and utter lunatic. Plz avoid that, for both our sakes. Just be cool, and good luck to you and your mom. We’re all rooting for you, because this is America after all.
Do you have a question for Sara? Email her at [email protected]
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She currently works at David Lusk Gallery and is the former gallery coordinator for the Carl Van Vechten and Aaron Douglas Galleries at Fisk University. She is also the apprentice to paintings conservator Cynthia Stow of Cumberland Art Conservation. Estes is the cofounder and curator of the Nashville-based contemporary exhibition space Threesquared. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including BURNAWAY, Number, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, and ArtNow.