Researching Art

What can you tell me about my work of art?   The Stark Museum of Art receives many questions from private collectors asking for information about works of art that they own or about the works of art of a particular artist. Although it is not within the scope of our public mission to do extensive research for private individuals, we encourage the understanding and appreciation of western art by serving as a research resource, responding to specific inquiries, and pointing individuals to other sources for information, as our resources and time permit. We have prepared bibliographies on some artists. Often, individuals ask about a specific work of art, but provide very limited information about the work, which makes it difficult for our Museum or other sources to respond. We have prepared guidelines for documenting works of art. Private collectors will increase their own knowledge and be in a stronger position to obtain advice by documenting their works of art as suggested.

Research Guidelines for Documenting Works of Art

I. The Work of Art

Artist, Title, Date: Record artist’s name, title of the work, and the date of the work. (Indicate source of information; see below.) If the artist is unknown, write unknown and include any information about possible geographical origin of work.

Inscriptions: Record all inscriptions found on the front and back of the work, such as the signature, date, numbers.  Also record any attached labels. Be sure to copy the inscriptions exactly as they are seen. For instance, use capital letters if there are capital letters. Also note the location of the inscriptions. On sculpture, inspect the work carefully and record all inscriptions, including those found under the base.

Measurements: Measure the work of art itself, first the height, then the width, and depth. Then measure the frame or base dimensions, in same order. Record, indicating units of measurement used (such as inches or centimeters.)

Materials: Describe the materials used to create the work accurately and precisely, such as oil on canvas, watercolor, and engraving. Look at the work of art using a magnifying glass; note if you see regularized pattern of dots indicating a print. If you are unsure about or unfamiliar with the type of materials used, ask an artist, art teacher, framer, or another individual likely to be knowledgeable about materials used in making art.

Subject matter Describe subject matter as precisely and accurately as possible.

Photograph: Document the work of art photographically. II.  History of the Work of Art

Provenance: Develop a provenance (ownership history). Indicate when, where, how, and from whom the work was acquired. If possible, go back to the previous owner and obtain direct information on how that person/business acquired it, and continue tracing backwards. If the individual is deceased, interview other people who might have knowledge or records about the work.

Archival Research: Search relevant records associated with the work. If the work descended through the family, look through family inventories (sometimes made for estate or insurance purposes), letters, account books, and journals/diaries.

Documentation: Make copies of any written documentation, such as receipts for purchases.

Exhibitions: List exhibitions in which this work of art appeared. Labels on the work of art often give information about exhibition history.

Secondary Research: Research the artist, using your local library or similar resource. If the artist is not known or is obscure, consult a historical society in the region from which the artist or work originated.

Bibliography: List publications that mention the work of art and/or that have reproduced an image of it.

  • Adapted from material prepared by the Whitney Gallery of Western Art.
  • Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, WY
  • Revised January 2008.

What is my work of art worth?  Staff members of the Stark Museum of Art are prohibited by Museum policy from providing appraisals. We do not offer opinions on financial value. Researching financial value or obtaining an official appraisal is the private collectors responsibility. Sometimes, Stark Museum of Art staff members might be able to point private collectors to methods of researching financial value. Organizations of appraisers can be consulted.

Finding an Appraiser

Museums generally do not provide appraisals or estimates of financial value. Collectors seeking appraisals can contact organizations that represent professionals in the field.

  • American Society of Appraisers
  • 555 Herndon Parkway, Suite 125
  • Herndon, VA 20170
  • (703) 478-2228 Fax: (703) 742-8471

Finding a Conservator

How do I care for a work of art or find someone to clean or repair it? For information about caring for works of art and locating a conservator, contact:  

  • Northeast Document Conservation Center
  • 100 Brickstone Square, 4th floor
  • Andover, MA 01810-1494
  • 978.470.1010
  • Web site:
  • Adapted from Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Historical Center
  • by Stark Museum of Art, Research Library
  • 712 Green Avenue, Orange, TX 77630. January 2008.