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Most of us possess beautiful paintings, vases, rugs, furniture and jewelry handed down from generations. Some of these precious possessions are displayed innocuously in our living rooms while some are stashed away in closets or carefully wrapped and stored away in the basement or the garage. Rarely do we think of their value or how much they are actually worth in hard dollars. We don’t have the time or the inclination to dwell on the possibilities until a random story appears in papers of an heirloom painting fetching the dumbstruck owner millions of dollars.

So is that painting in your attic really worth something? How can you find out if your great-grandmother’s beautiful oil painting is an antique masterpiece which can really prove to be a windfall?

TV shows and real-life stories of people discovering treasure in their garage or dumpster have proven to be a wakeup call for many of us. Many pieces of valuable artwork were lost by their owners during the various wars and ensuing continent-spanning relocations; many were passed down to ignorant and careless heirs; a lot were stolen; and many were bought and sold by ill-informed art lovers, all of which left a number of antique valuables gathering dust in the most unexpected of places.

So explore your dusty cellar and clean up your attic. Keep your fingers crossed to find a gem! Since you are reading this post you probably do have something on your hands. Here are a few tips to help you ascertain the value of your find.

Paintings Are of Several Kinds

First you need to make out what you have on you. Is it an oil painting or a watercolor? Is it an original or a less valuable print? And there are many more varieties that you should consider.

Prints of watercolors are very difficult to make out from the original, and require a trained eye to spot the difference. Rare prints of valuable paintings do command a very high price in secondary markets.

Watercolor paintings need to be closely examined under a magnifying glass to find out tell-tale signs that give away it is a print.

Brushstrokes are not as evident in a watercolor as in an oil painting. But you may be able to spot gradations, highlights or even spots where the artist has scratched out the layers of paint to reveal a bit of the white paper beneath. Other signs of original painting can be identified by closer and more expert examination.

Examine Your Possession

Most paintings have labels at the back that provide details of the work, the artist, the sellers and even the price.

The easiest way to find out more about your artwork is from the details in the label at the back. If the name of the artist and the title is available to you, research online and find out more about the artwork. You will get information regarding the number of prints and their value if the artist is well-known and the work is documented.

Many artworks also have the names of galleries or museums printed on labels. This proves the art is a reproduction or a print.

Prints Too Are Worth a Fortune

Prints too may fetch you your millions, provided you recognize them.

You probably are already aware of limited edition prints and how coveted they are by collectors. Signed and numbered prints of valuable paintings are very expensive. Here too, if you have the details on your artwork itself, Google to find out more. There is a wealth of information available online that can aid your research.

Do not have the misconception that an unsigned print is worthless. The practice of signing prints or reproductions has only been around for the last 100 years or so. Prior to that there were authorized prints that were sold by renowned artists unsigned. Picasso’s granddaughter is said to have sold many prints with her signature on them, which very much resembled the Master’s!

The earliest prints were in sepia or black and white. There were other practices as well like etching. Etching required the artist to make an impression of his/her work on a metal plate using acid. Etchings are then made of the engravings on the plate. Picasso, Rembrandt and Goya are said to have experimented with this art form which has been around since the 16th century. Etchings are a very niche area, so do ensure you get an expert to appraise your possession.

The Frames Tell a Different Story Altogether!

There are many prints and paintings that come in beautifully crafted frames. And even if your painting does not value a lot there are many antique frames that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. So do not throw away that grand old frame yet. Appraisers will be able to tell you if it is a Louis XV revival frame worth $20,000 or a Childe Hassam worth $50,000.

So the takeaway is that if you have a suspected valuable antique in your home, do not tamper with it in anyway. Do not strip the red polish, no touchups on the aging oil canvas, do not clean the painting and never throw away the original frames.

An art aficionado or a knowledgeable collector will be able to guide you in the right direction.

Specialty Prints Also Command a Premium

Specialty prints like political cartoons or pictures of important events of the time command a high price from niche collectors. There is a high demand for prints related to horses, royal life, football, flora and fauna, social issues, you name it, the variety and the vastness of the subject is mindboggling.

So You Have a Masterpiece in Your Garage, What Next?

Expert appraisals and evaluations alone can determine the monetary scope of what you possess. Galleries and art dealers do buy valuable pieces from the public, but you need to be doubly sure you have a good bargain. Most will be knowledgeable, honest and fair. But who would not love to land a life-changing deal? You cannot really blame them if your 5K oil canvas sold for millions in a matter of few months. So be sure before you strike a deal.

If the experts at reputed auction houses are convinced, they will definitely be glad to help you dispose your treasures. They will also be able to spread the word about the auction in the rarefied inner circle of art collectors and build a buzz around it.


The chance of finding multi-million dollar antique paintings in your cellar is very less. But there are still undiscovered artworks worth millions tucked away among people unaware of their existence. So if you happen to have one of them, you now know how to deal with your find.