Best know the terminology before buying art

If a golden truth of collecting is to buy something because you love it, then the silver rule of collecting may be to continually seek knowledge. An informed decision is not only immediately beneficial, but also may lead to gains in the future. Fine art is one of many interests to which this applies.

The world of art is vast and complex. It can be intimidating, but the invigorating, comforting, enticing, sometimes heartbreaking imagery and emotion that art depicts and provokes is without equal. Simply put, art is transformative and worth understanding.

‘Bamboo Grove,’ Nguyen Gia Tri, Indochina Fine Arts (My Thuat Dong Duong), 1939, lacquer painting, 43 in. x 31.5 in. Sold for $12,000 through Jasper52 in June 2017. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Jasper52

To help understand art, and hopefully to diminish any intimidation buying it may pose, the following information should be helpful to novice collectors in navigating auction catalogs with a greater awareness of art terminology.

Identifying Identity

The inclusion of the name of an artist (first, last, and additional name) is listed when the item is determined to be genuine artwork done by the artist. Often accompanying the artist’s name are the years he or she was born and died.

Silkscreen and pencil on primed canvas, ‘Men in Her Life,’ executed in October-November 1962, Andy Warhol, 84 ½ in. x 83 ¼ in. Sold for $56.5 million during a Nov. 8, 2010 auction through Phillips. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Phillips

You will also come across lot descriptions with terms that reflect ties to an artist, be it in affiliation or style. Understanding what these phrases mean is a factor in informed decision making. The most commonly seen terms include, as defined at

  • Attributed to – This indicates that the piece is likely an example of the artist’s work, in the opinion of the auction house.
  • Studio of – An indication of where the artwork was created, in the workshop of the artist mentioned, and furthermore, the artist may have been supervising the artist who created the piece.
  • Style of – Refers to an example of artwork completed in a manner of a specific artist, but not by the artist. This also speaks to the possible identity of contemporaries of a specific artist. That information can be helpful when attempting to determine the age of a piece and to authenticate it.
  • The Manner of – Like “style of,” except it is a painting done by an artist later, not a contemporary of the artist inspiring the style.
  • After – As determined by the auction house to be a copy of a specific artwork.

Italian School (17th/18th century), old master painting, head of Saint Peter, oil on canvas, unsigned, 13.5 in. x 10.25 in (stretcher), unframed. Condition report: overall fair, old relining, craquelure, possible restorations, varnish darkened, scratch at center right and lower left. Sold for $650 at auction in November of 2009. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Millea Bros. Ltd.

Another set of terms to be aware of are signed, dated or inscribed. These words indicate the presence a signature, date or inscription by the artist, in the opinion of the auction house. The inclusion of a four-letter word changes the meaning of this trio words considerably: The addition of the word “with” means the terms were added by someone other than the artist, in the opinion of the auction house.

Collecting Tip: Have language translation software, like Google Translate, at the ready while reviewing auction catalogs. Checking phrases or terms that appear in catalog descriptions will help confirm identifying details and increase your familiarity with an artist’s artistic approach.

‘Voilier sur le petit bras de la Seine,’ Argenteuil,1872, Claude Monet, oil on canvas, signed and subsequently dated lower right: ‘75 Claude Monet,’ 20 1/8 in. x 25 in. Sold for $8.2 million during Fine Art Auctions Miami’s April 26, 2012 auction. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Fine Art Auctions Miami

A good example of this tip can be applied to the following description of a Monet painting. The phrase “Voilier sur le petit bras de la Seine” translates to “Sailboat on the small arm of the Seine.” When paired with the remaining verbiage: Argenteuil, 1872, a confirmation of the history of this piece comes into view. According to information obtained from, Monet lived along the Seine River, in the village of Argenteuil, between 1871 and 1878. During this time, Monet’s production of landscape paintings showcasing the scenery of the area was prolific. Phrases and terminology within lot descriptions in auction catalogs are clues to a more deeper understanding of an artist.

Original ink drawing (with traces of pencil) on paper, untitled, attributed to/in the manner of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Signed with the artist’s monogram lower left and dated ’23, 6/12 x 9 5/8 inches (approximate dimensions). Small area of foxing to obverse principally along the edges; some foxing to reverse, otherwise good condition. Sold for $1,000 through Preston Hall Gallery on July 22, 2014. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Preston Hall Gallery

Understanding Condition

Another essential element in making informed decisions when it comes to any item at auction is condition. This factor alone can impact the value of an object substantially. Understanding the terms used to describe condition is imperative.

Collecting Tip: Review the condition report of any piece you are considering buying. Request a condition report, if one isn’t provided, although it is the protocol with many auction houses to provide the report.

‘Jacob Wrestles Angel,’ color lithograph, Marc Chagall, 1972, signed in pencil, from the numbered edition 50, framed with glass, mat and sunlight toning, with possible faint fading, soft handling crease in margin, discoloration on verso, old hinges along top with some skinning to upper sheet edge, otherwise in good condition, sight 14 ¾ in. x 11 ½ in. Sold for $2,250 at auction in February 2009 through Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers Inc. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Clark’s Fine Art & Auctioneers

In addition to understanding the terminology of condition, the ability to recognize elements of the condition is important.

  • Foxing – Small brown spots, also referred to as “freckles,” that appear on art presented on paper are frequently caused by mold and metal impurities within the paper. Damp and high humidity conditions can fuel the growth of mold. In some cases, professional and experienced conservators can lessen or remove foxing – for a price. This added expense should be considered when planning a bidding strategy.
  • Toning – Describes the darkening of paper over time, as well as an impact of exposure to humidity and other effects in the atmosphere, which in turn makes the paper acidic.
  • Skinning – A result of a piece being cleaned extensively, which causes a portion of the original painting to be removed.
  • Craquelure – Pattern of fine cracks that develop in oil paintings after several years. The shrinking of the paint or varnish is among the primary causes.
  • Fading – Extensive exposure to light (fluorescent, sunlight, etc.) can cause an item of artwork, among other items, to fade. The damage from exposure to light may not immediately be visible, but a negative impact is still taking place. It’s also not just fading that is a result of exposure; brittleness, yellowing, and even darkening can take place. Again, this is something a conservator may be able to address – for a price.

‘Saint Tropez – LePort,’ lithograph in colors, Paul Signac, signed and annotated ‘No. 73’ in pencil, small puncture in paper along top edge of image, a few spots of foxing, 16 15/16 in. x 12 7/8 in. Sold for $4,500 during a June 2014 auction at Rachel Davis Fine Arts. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Rachel Davis Fine Arts

Collecting Tip: Closely consider the subject and theme of a piece of artwork when determining age. Examine the style of clothing, furnishings, activities depicted and other indications of historical or social manners present within a painting to help determine age.

‘Lemon Squash (3),’ 1999, screenprint with lame, Yayoi Kusama, signed lower right, dated and titled lower left, ed. 5/60, sheet 27 1/2 in. h x 23 1/8 in.” w, overall (with frame): 31 ¼ in. x 25 ¼ in. w. This print combines three of Kusama’s iconic subjects – her ‘infinity nets’ pattern, her ‘polka-dots’ and her repeated tall glasses of beverages with lemon wedge – making this print an important work that visually and thematically encapsulates her oeuvre. Sold for $6,000 during a July 2013 auction. Image courtesy of LiveAuctioneers archive and Clars Auction Gallery

With sales of art topping $45 billion worldwide there is interest and opportunity to acquire art of varied styles and a range of budgets. By understanding the details presented auction catalogs and condition reports you will be more empowered in your efforts to acquire artwork, which in turn can expand your appreciation of art.