I am often questioned about paintings that display portraits of men and women plus those special ones of children. Unfortunately, there are two parts to valuing a portrait painting, one being the subject person and the other, the artist. Both of these elements can add substantially to the value but with neither being known, I can say in general that it is best to leave that painting for others to buy.
First, the person being represented by the painting is usually not known and this will greatly depreciate its value for most buyers. If the person posing, however, is a person of great reputation, then the painting may have unlimited value. Let’s suppose you found a painting of Abraham Lincoln that he had posed for, you lucky person, you may have just become a millionaire. Sometimes the person pictured in the painting will not immediately be recognizable but with the proper research they can often be identified. The quality of the painting does have some bearing but not as much as in other fields in the art world.
The second factor to be considered when valuing a portrait painting is the artist. Often artists with great talent traveled across the country painting portraits to provide income for themselves. You will find these artists didn't sign their work most of the time, but due to the fact that they were very prolific painters, the professionals can compare paintings and attribute them to certain artists. I don't think that you will find many guides to the early portrait painters and often the only answers that you can get will be from consulting the experts. However, to the trained eye, a painting is like a fingerprint of the artist who painted it. I am always amazed when I see one of the appraisers on the Road Show say that is a painting by so and so. I think “but we will have to do a little research”, meaning you are going to put out a buck to prove that you have a real treasure.
Don't get sucked in by a portrait if it can't be identified because often the frame is more valuable then the painting. I say this tongue in cheek but it is true and I have often purchased a portrait where the frame was worth $500 or more while the painting had little or no value. This isn't an area of the art world that I would recommend you spending a lot of time on but if you come across a great piece, search out the advice of an expert.
There are exceptions to this advice as there always are. Two subjects that can often stand on their own are children and soldiers. Children’s portraits can bring huge money. Just the other day I saw on the road show where a painting of a little boy, maybe five years old, dressed in a dress, wearing a necklace and holding a rose was quite valuable. My first thought was that if I had Joshua painted that way I would be afraid to turn my back on him. Wow! How things have changed.
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