Researching an artwork

Researching an artwork requires detective work! As with any research it is a very good idea to start from the things you definitely know and to build on those. The artwork itself is the best starting point, along with any documents or personal knowledge. Here are our tips for getting started on the research process.


Who is the artwork by? (The artist or culture)

Often you will know who made your artwork but if not you can check the work for a:

• signature
• monogram (the artist’s mark or initials)
• inscription or label (notes on the back or base of the work)

You may decide to have an appraisal to try and identify the artist. Experienced appraisers may recognize an artist's work simply by looking at it. If you already have an idea of who the artist might be you can check biographical sources, library catalogues and the Internet to find online and print resources – particularly other images by that artist - that will help you authenticate the work. Find New Zealand Artists is a good place to start under the artist’s name.

Some useful resources:

Papers Past
New Zealand Births, Deaths and Marriages
Getty Union List of Artists Names 

What is the artwork about? (The title and subject)

Is it abstract or representational? Is it of a place, person or object? If so, where is it or who is it? Historic artworks often had set subjects or themes and included symbols and motifs that may also be referenced in contemporary artworks.

Some useful resources:

Smithsonian: Symbols in Art 

When was it made? (The date)

This may be noted on the artwork alongside the signature or as an inscription on the back or base of the work. You may only be able to establish an approximate date (or circa date) which might be based on the work’s style fitting with a particular art movement. The subject of the work may itself give you some idea of the date: vehicles, clothes and activities may all provide clues.

Some useful resources:

Metropolitan Museum: Timeline of Art History 
The Art Story 

What are its physical characteristics? (The medium, support and dimensions)

Is it a painting, work on paper or sculpture? What is the medium (e.g. oil, acrylic, bronze, ink)? What is the support (e.g. canvas, panel, paper)? Contemporary artworks include video, sound and installation works that may be made up of a variety of materials. The standard ratio for measuring art is Height by Width (HxW) (edge to edge on the paper or canvas, without frame) or Height by Width by Depth (HxWxD) for sculpture and multi-media.

Some useful resources:

Tate: Glossary of Art Terms 
MoMA: What is a Print? 


Provenance (ownership history)

Where and when was the work acquired? If you inherited it, how long has it been in your family? Labels and inscriptions on the back of the work may provide clues to the work’s provenance. The work may have been in an exhibition, which may have a catalogue or which may have been reviewed in a newspaper or magazine. Unlike a book, the title of an artwork is not fixed for all time and titles can change. Many works end up having similar or even identical titles so identification purely by title is often difficult.

Fakes and reproductions

New Zealand is not immune to art crime and Karl Sim’s forgeries of C.F. Goldie paintings, among others, made the headlines. However, more commonly works are simply reproductions of originals (posters or prints) made perfectly legitimately for sale as museum or gallery merchandise. These can usually easily be identified by distinguishing features such as the printer’s dot on the paper (use a magnifying glass!) or imprints such as the name of the gallery or printer on the lower edge or back of the image. Trained conservators and reputable appraisers may be able to assist with identifying fakes and forgeries or reproductions.

Some useful resources:

Getty Provenance Databases 
Real or Repro 
New Zealand Conservators of Cultural Material

Appraisal and value

Sales results

Auction records are a standard research tool for determining the value of an artist’s work on the secondary or resale market (the primary market is when the work is first sold). Sales records often include very useful information such as details of the work, images, provenance and exhibition history, and both the estimated and hammer price.

A useful resource:

AASD: Australian Art Sales Digest (subscription required for full access) Includes NZ sales.


You may wish to consider finding an appraiser to determine the value of your artwork. Appraisers are trained specialists who work for a fee. They evaluate your piece and give you a written statement of its value for insurance purposes. Check your local Yellow Pages for lists of valuers.

Good luck

Researching a work of art can be a slow and frustrating process! We hope the suggestions on this site are useful.