Glossary of Art Terminology

Glossary of Terminology as encountered in the art world.

Because my intention is for this blog to function as a bit of a teaching tool for collectors, I thought some definitions of commonly used terminology might be interesting / useful.  As the blog progresses, I will likely add to this list and make a more comprehensive glossary.  But, here is a ‘starter’ list for today.

After: A direct copy of a known work of art created at any time after the production of the known piece and done by anyone other than the original artist.  A painting that is ‘After Rembrandt, for instance, could have been produced at any time from the late 17th C. to yesterday.  Some auction catalogs will follow this with an estimate of when the copy was actually done.  An entry might say ‘After Rembrandt van Rijn, late 19th C.’  Keep in mind that as copies ‘after’ paintings are never going to be valued very highly.  The value will rest with the quality of the copy, the age of the copy and the condition.  However, ‘after’ paintings are essentially decorative pieces.

Attributed to: In the opinion of the auction house that is offering the piece for sale or the appraiser who is doing the appraisal, the subject art piece is very likely the work of the named artist.  However, the work is not signed and the association with that artist is not guaranteed.   If you are interested in purchasing a piece at auction that is listed as ‘attributed to,’ it would be wise to carefully read that auction house’s definition of the term and guarantees of authenticity that they offer.   Generally speaking, pieces that are attributed will have values lower than those  listed as ‘By.’

Bought in:  Went unsold at auction

Burn:  A piece that has been offered for sale at auction and has gone unsold can be considered “burned.”  Any subsequent offerings of the piece will be made with much lower auction estimates and will be met with less interest by savvy collectors.  Many times, pieces go unsold because the pre-auction estimates were very inflated and/or the consignor required too high a reserve.  However, once a piece fails to sell, potential buyers worry about condition and overall merit of that piece as compared to other pieces within the artist’s oeuvre.  These suspicions may be unfounded, but will usually result in a much lower selling price when a piece is re-offered.

Buyer’s Premium:  The sales commission charged by the auction house to the buyer.  This is percentage added to the hammer price.  This percentage can be any amount, but generally hovers around 15-20% and is usually lower on higher priced purchases.   Auction sales are generally reported to the market with buyer’s premium already added in.  For instance, a painting that

Lined / Re-lined: when a painting on canvas has been backed with an extra supporting canvas.  The currently acceptable method for professional restoration requires that all work be reversible.  So, a new lining would be applied with a product containing bee’s wax that will re-melt when heated and can be removed easily when needed.   However, in earlier generations, these lining canvases were often applied with glues and substances that are difficult to reverse.

Maquette: A small version of a sculpture that is intended to be produced at a much larger scale.  These are normally produced in order to show a potential client who is considering commissioning a large sculpture.  The maquette can be in any medium and is used as a sales tool.  Sometimes, maquettes are subsequently offered for sale.

Medium: The material in which the art is produced, i.e. oil, acrylic, watercolor, bronze, etc.

Platemark: The indentation around the outer edge of an intaglio print that marks the edge of the plate.  As the damp paper is pressed through the high impact press, the edge of the printing plate indents the paper.  Noting the platemark is a good quick way to spot an intaglio print, however there are two cautions.  First, the paper might have been trimmed inside the platemark.  Second, it is possible for an unscrupulous dealer to emboss the paper with a fake platemark.

Provenance: the ownership record of a piece; ideally this would trace the piece from its original production, through each owner or each time it was sold, to the current owner.  Many pieces are sold without provenance.  It is quite common for the ownership history to be lost or incomplete.   Provenance can help establish the authenticity of a piece that is in question.

Remarque: An original drawing done in the margins of a print.  An artist might do a quick sketch in pen or pencil in the margins of a print that relate to the image of the print.

Reserve: The low-end price guarantee demanded by a consignor; the lowest hammer price that a piece offered at auction will actually sell.   Many auction houses suggest reserves to their consignors that are some percentage of the low end of the auction estimate—say 90% of the low estimate.  However, the reserve does not determine the final sale amount.   It is only a reflection of the consignor’s unwillingness to sell below a certain level.   Many pieces are sold without reserve.   A consignor who demands too high a reserve may end up with an unsold lot that is now considered “burned.” (See above).

Sell-through: The ratio of pieces that have sold at a give auction to pieces that were offered.  An 85% sell-through ratio means that 85 of the 100 items offered found buyers.

Sight:  The part of the art piece that is visible from the front or recto.  When speaking of a painting on canvas, it is most common to have the full size of the stretchers listed, but sight size might be listed if it is impossible to accurately measure the stretcher, for instance when a piece is so large that it is cumbersome to remove from the wall.  With works on paper, the sight size is the measurement of the inside of matting materials.

Surmoulage : A bronze that has been cast from an existing copy of the work, not from the artist’s original molds.   This type of piece is cast from 19th C. bronzes that are now beyond copyright protection because the copyright has run its time limit.  If one were to compare the original bronze to the copy, they would be different in size and the original would generally have much more crisp detail.   Since the surmoulage is cast from the original, the copy bronze might include artist’s signatures, copyright and numbering that come from the original bronze.  So, not every bronze labeled ‘Copyright Frederic Remington’ is an authentic life-time bronze.

Trompe L’oeil : This is a French term literally meaning ‘deception of the eye;’ the term refers to paintings that are done on a flat surface so photo-realistically that the viewer is meant to see the items depicted as fully three dimensional.

USPAP: An acronym for Uniform Standard of Professional Appraisal Practices, the standards of qualifications, ethics and working procedures outlined by the Appraisal Foundation for professional appraisers.  The Appraisal Foundation is a nonprofit group established by Congress to set forth and standardize procedures for appraisers of real estate and personal property.

Verbal Approximation of Value:  A verbal estimate of value given by an appraiser, generally done when there is not time or necessity for full research on an item.   The value relies on the appraiser’s accumulated years of experience but the appraiser has not had the opportunity to do full research.

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