eBay Hunting

Could you point me towards some good keywords and also how you judge something as authentic or good just by looking at an image?

Sure! So in order to find work that either is unsigned or by an artist that is unfamiliar to you, you have to search by artist materials, techniques, and styles. And then do the same in multiple languages. Everything that I’ve purchased so far (over the past 19 months) was found using the following keywords, and then combing through hundreds of thousands of listings. It can be tedious and exhausting work, but I made a routine of it and challenging myself to find something great on a monthly basis makes it all worthwhile.

In English (ebay.com and ebay.co.uk): oil on panel (copper, wood, board), portrait, century, terra cotta, archaic bronze, zoomorphic, listed artist, signed, wikipedia, original, museum quality, old master, pedestal, carved frame, antique, religious, sacred, church interior, carved marble, carved wood, pointillist, impressionist, tabernacle frame, royal, Islamic, Turkish, French, Spanish, Russian, Austrian, Zhou and Shang Dynasty.

In French (ebay.fr and ebay.be): terre cuite, huile sur panneau (cuivre, bois), siecle (17eme), eglise interieure, marbre, tableau, portrait, ancien, royaux.

In German (ebay.at): terra kotta, olbild, olgemalde, Biedermeier, skulptur, marmor, portrat, museal, top, holzfigur, raritat, alte meister, meisterwerk, antik, Indonesien.

In addition to this I have a list of specific artists that I like or have already purchased something by, and use saved searches to alert me whenever their names appear in a listing. I also have saved sellers that consistently sell high-quality objects.

It is important to know that absolutely everything being sold on international markets from China or Hong Kong are forgeries, and that well over 50% of listings everywhere are either forgeries or extremely mediocre artworks. This is why I say that, for objects less than $2,500, your odds of finding a great object are 1 in 5,000, and a masterpiece, 1 in 50,000. To me this isn’t a matter of taste–that is simply the availability of great objects on the market for that price range. I haven’t really explored the market for objects above $5,000. I don’t think anything great can be found in an art gallery for less than $5,000, so I stick to auctions.

Although I quickly scan through listings, I try to remember what is good and bad about each and every object, so that I can use this information to determine whether or not an object is truly exceptional when it appears. Oftentimes my confidence in the authenticity of an object is only determined if I am satisfied that I can’t find a duplicate somewhere else online. Something that looks too good to be true is probably a forgery of a famous work in a museum. But to even begin looking to see if something is a copy, you have to be familiar enough with artistic styles to come up with a list of artists who could’ve made the work. I haven’t tried this myself but you can probably find a way to get TinEye to reverse image search a painting of questionable attribution.

When looking at oil paintings, one of the most important things that I look for is the light reflecting off of brushstrokes on the surface. This texture tells me the thickness of brushstrokes, the overall paint handling, whether the paint is flaking off or cracking, and whether the painting is done on stretched canvas or on a panel. I can determine all of these things even in the very worst of grainy, low-resolution photos.

To understand whether or not something is good from a photograph you have to really study masterpieces in person in museums, and then really study how much photographs and forgeries fail to live up to the real thing. I don’t think there’s a better way to understand what makes a masterpiece a masterpiece than by studying the art of painting or sculpture yourself, in the same manner that the artist did. For this I recommend Studio Escalier for painting, and Grand Central Academy for sculpture. Two crucial textbooks are Light for the Artist, by Ted Seth Jacobs, and The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing, by Anthony Ryder. The languages of form and color are very real disciplines, and these teachers are some of the best in the world to show you precisely what the Old Masters knew.

Alternatively, people like Thomas Hoving and Otto Wittmann seem to have developed a supremely confident eye despite not knowing how to paint, by the raw experience of looking at and handling thousands of objects from every possible era and culture. They both share a healthy disrespect for anyone who relies on scientific analyses over their own five senses and intuition.

To recap, you must study the worst art, the best art, and everything in between, and confirm those value judgments for yourself by looking at tens of thousands of objects on the open market. After that, for every object you like, you must ask yourself, “How much am I willing to pay and sacrifice to acquire this?” When you start finding objects of such quality that you answer, “Whatever it takes,” and are willing to live with the financial consequences–and the art–for the rest of your life, then I think you are ready to begin collecting. Don’t bother with prints or other ephemera, just save up and go straight for original work of historic excellence. The cost is really not much more, for something that’s infinitely better.

Earlier thoughts:

  • Always look for, or request to see, the backside or underside of a painting or sculpture of interest. Whenever possible, I try to buy paintings on rigid panels such as wood or copper, and avoid the vast majority of paintings done on stretched canvas. Because of the expense, it is far less likely for a forger to use a panel. The authenticity of an original terra cotta sculpture I recently purchased was confirmed by finding dozens of pinholes on the underside of the base, and finding their absence on an artist’s proof.
  • Study the seller’s transaction history: do they sell art for a living, or do they happen to have a couple random art objects that they want to get rid of? The former usually sells heavily curated second-rate objects, the latter sometimes unknowingly sells uncurated first-rate objects.
  • Does an object have dozens of bids early on? This is usually because the seller is popular, and not because the object is worthwhile.
  • Always download all of the photos supplied by the seller for an object of interest. A basic image-editor such as Apple’s Preview can glean important information from them by adjusting brightness, temperature, saturation, and contrast.
  • Not sure if an object is unique? Blouin Art Sales Index can dig up copies and prices paid, and even Google image search can find duplicates and link you to their auction listing. I usually check to see whether an object is fresh to market: sometimes I will find that the seller has recently purchased it and is trying to flip it on eBay for profit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is helpful to know how much it last sold for.
  • Not sure if an object is a forgery? See if there is, or has ever been, a market for copyists or forgeries. I try to avoid artists, subject matter, or styles that have an extensive history of copying. I especially avoid art that is easy to copy (by the artist or by forgers), such as metal objects, abstract art, prints, lithographs, engravings, photographs. It is much harder to find, but to me much more rewarding, to find an absolutely unique work of art, molded by the hands of a master craftsman.
  • For every authentic first-rate work that you find eBay, there are 5,000 mediocre objects. I suggest going on Flickr or Pinterest to look at tourist photographs of first-rate objects in museums: these are the quality of photos that eBay sellers use, so knowing what a museum-quality object looks like through the lens of a shoddy cell-phone camera is crucial. Understand how much lighting conditions, or a lack of varnish, affect the appearance of a painting in such photos.
  • Saved searches are useful for the names of individual artists, as well as for sellers who routinely find high quality work from estate sales.
  • I like to search across extremely broad themes, such as anything painted on or sculpted in wood, or anything by a listed artist, or anything by an artist linked to wikipedia in the item description, or anything that represents the Virgin Mary. It is important to continually revisit museum databases to retrieve keywords that are useful to search for.
  • Outside of the US, there are strong markets in ebay.co.uk, ebay.it, ebay.at, ebay.es, ebay.com.au, ebay.fr, ebay.be, the-salesroom.com, liveauctioneers.com, molotok.ru, auctions.yahoo.co.jp, mercadolibre.com.co, gittigidiyor.com
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