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Help me clean and value my great grandfather's California Impressionist oil paintings.
June 13, 2008 10:13 AM   Subscribe

How should I best clean and care for my great grandfather's oil paintings?

I inherited a dozen or so of my great grandfather's oil paintings from the early- to mid-Sixties. Many of the paintings are very dirty either from long term storage or from decades of hanging in the homes of heavy smokers. I'd like to restore, or at least minimally clean, these paintings. Professional conservation, which could cost well over $10k, is not an option at this time.

As an add-on to the main question: What can I do to ascertain the value of these paintings? I currently don't know too much about my great grandfather's late-blooming art career (most of the relatives on that side are long dead). I think his paintings are part of the very-popular-with-collectors "California Impressionism" school, although he might have been a latecomer by the early-60s. He painted mostly impressionist Southern California landscapes with some oddball Northern California, Oregon and Korean subjects thrown in. I think my family still owns most of his maybe 25 paintings, although I have heard that he had traded with some contemporary artist friends.
posted by maniactown to Media & Arts (6 answers total)
 
What can I do to ascertain the value of these paintings?-

Take pictures, send to Christieis Sotheby's, and any other auctioneers you can think of. If they see value, they will estimate a price. Check their web sites. This is a free service, you are not obligated to sell, of course. If they decline interest, well, at least you know. HOWEVER - time changes their infinite variety- I've known Christie's to suggest five figures for a painting that they would not even consider bothering with a few years later. Fashions change. Be attentive to the market. If at first you don't succeed, wait, and try try again. (Or go for a lower tier house that might be less fussy.)

There are sites that can give you auction records, but they charge for the privilege. Some dealers in your type of work might be of use, but get recommendations first. Cut throat trade, art.

In the meantime - keep out of direct sunlight.
posted by IndigoJones at 10:57 AM on June 13, 2008


A rambling sort of answer, my apologies, but don't dust them with a feather duster - the feathers can catch and pull off bits of paint. Very soft brushes (e.g. sable) are better. Actually, don't dust them at all if you suspect the paint is flaking anywhere, in *any* amount, no matter how little.

Echoing the don't hang them in direct sunlight advice from Indigo Jones - that's good advice for any artwork, not just oil paintings. Very generally speaking, paintings do fine in the same temps/humidity levels people like - if you're wanting to hang the paintings, hang them on interior walls unless you put bumpers behind the frames in order to increase airflow...condensation is bad.

There are good basic care guidelines here. For anything beyond that, you're most likely going to want a conservator as paintings are easily damaged, which will directly affect their value.

Congrats on the inheritance - my grandfather was also an artist, and I'm afraid I don't have any of his work, although a few pieces are still in the family - it is a lovely legacy to have.
posted by faineant at 11:08 AM on June 13, 2008


You clean them with saliva, but I wouldn't attempt it unless you know what you're doing. I would dust them then wipe them gently with a damp cloth. That will remove dust, grime and cobwebs. Anything else and you're risking damage.

IndigoJones advice on Christies and Sothebys is spot on. Christies are particularly helpful, you can contact their relevant department from this page.
posted by fire&wings at 11:15 AM on June 13, 2008


I was instructed by a friend (with a 40-y experience as a conservator) on how to clean oil paintings, by just lightly brushing them with makeshift q-tips (you will use a lot of them, so grab a wooden stick the size of a toothpick --NOT a toothpick, you don't want a point anywhere near the canvas-- and lots of cotton wool) dipped in distilled water.

Prepare q-tip by rolling the stick on a bit of cotton wool held by your thumb, index and middle finger, dip lightly in distilled water, brush lightly, discard the cotton tip, repeat on the whole painting.

After that, the paintings might need a light coat of protective varnish, so a pro intervention might be required sooner or later anyway. If there's value, an auctioneer or a gallery will point out what kind of conservation the paintings need.

Also, seconding the warnings about art merchants and market fluctuations.
posted by _dario at 11:18 AM on June 13, 2008


Anyway, if the paintings are from the 1960s, just a light, dry brush will probably do.
posted by _dario at 11:22 AM on June 13, 2008


A friend of mine used to do conservation for the Hermitage in the late 80s. Those Soviets always had the craziest solutions. Lots of dental tools and strange animal products.

If you are positive they are oil paintings, the q-tip trick is perfect. Just be careful as some types of paint are water soluble, though this is unlikely. I don't recommend varnish as those can sometimes mask true colors.

I third the warnings on dealing with art merchants. If there are no records of his paintings selling for a certain range, be very careful when dealing with these people, as they will always always try and swindle you. Art dealers are worse than used car dealers. If you do find someone interested, arrange some kind of consignment based on percentage rather than an up-front price.

If you are prepared to do the research, just find out who his contemporaries were. They may have more things on the market and you can set a baseline price from there.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 12:37 PM on June 13, 2008


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