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Cataloguing Fine Art, Part One: Paintings

By Lisa Thomas

One of the most important things we do at Stair Galleries is to catalogue each lot that we offer for sale. The catalogue entries provide buyers with the information they need to understand what the item is, who the artist is, the date it was made and the particulars that pertain to the item. The cataloguing process is different for every category of item, and each category has its own set of terminology. Within the Fine Arts area, we use different terminology for paintings, works on paper, prints and sculpture. In this part of our series on Cataloguing Fine Art, we will discuss how we catalogue paintings.

Artist’s Name and Dates
The first piece of information we provide in our catalogue description for a painting is the artist. When the work was executed by an artist whose name is recognizable, we list the name followed by the artist’s birth and death dates, where appropriate. This signifies that, in our best judgment, the work is by the hand of the named artist. In assigning this attribution we rely on provenance, past sales of the work and information given to us by the consignor. Provenance is the most important piece of information we use in determining attribution, and it is often said that provenance is the authentication for many artists.

Ary Twilight HENRY ARY (1802-1859): VIEW OF MOUNT MERINO AND SOUTH BAY, HUDSON, NY, AUTUMN TWILIGHT,Lot 822, October 25-26, 2014 auction.


Attributed to the Artist
The authentication process has become complex as law suits and legal liability play larger and larger roles. If we are not entirely comfortable with an artist attribution, we will say Attributed to the artist. This means that we feel the work is probably by the artist, but we feel less certain and there is probably a lack of provenance information to rely on.

Berthelsen ATTRIBUTED TO JOHANN BERTHELSEN (1883-1972): UNDER THE BRIDGE,Lot 229, June 7, 2014 auction.


Studio of the Artist
When we have a painting that was likely executed by an unknown hand, but under the supervision of a known painter, we say Studio of the artist. Other terms such as Circle of, Style of and Follower of have similar meanings. We use them to say that a work was made by an unknown hand, but in the style of, and usually contemporary to, a known artist. These terminologies give us some leeway in describing paintings where there is little available information, but that have artistic merit and are from the period. A painting that is in the style of a certain artist, but that was done at a later date, we describe as Manner of.

Lot 19 10-25-14 Codde CIRCLE OF PIETER CODDE (1599-1678): MUSIZIERENDE GESELLSCHAFT,Lot 19, October 25-26, 2014 auction.


After the Artist
For paintings that are copies of an original work, and where that work can be identified, we say After the artist. To use this terminology with a painting, we must be able to cite the painting being copied. The term After is used differently for prints and sculpture and will be discussed in a future article.

Renoir-Femme-Lot45-102514 AFTER PIERRE-AUGUSTE RENOIR: PORTRAIT D’UNE FEMME,Lot 45, October 25-26, 2014 auction.


When no artist or specific style, studio or manner can be identified, we use broader terminology to help place the painting in some kind of context. Continental School, European School, American School, etc., are used to give an idea of where we think the painting was done. For Modern and Contemporary art without an artist attribution, we say 20th Century School.

GamesParty-lot78-102514 CONTINENTAL SCHOOL: GAMES PARTY,Lot 78, October 25-26, 2014 auction.


The second piece of information we provide in a catalogue entry is the title of the work. In many cases the painting is titled on the reverse or bears a label with a title. If not, we try to assign a title that helps to identify the painting and is in line with other titles for similar works from the period. For example, if it is a 19th Century landscape scene with cows, we might title the work Pastoral Landscape with Grazing Cows. A Modern or Contemporary abstract painting might be called Untitled or Abstract Composition.

Medium and Date
After the artist and the title of the work, we describe the medium, followed by the date when known. Sometimes we use a circa date if we have information that allows us to do that. A circa date means we feel the work was created within ten years of the date cited.

Next we describe how and where the painting is signed. We put the signature in single quotes exactly as it is written on the canvas. This helps to identify the signature in the future if research is being done on the painting or the artist. If the painting is dated and/or inscribed on the front or the back, we list that as well. When we use the term bearing signature, we mean that, in our opinion, the signature has been added by another hand. We often have paintings on offer that bear a signature that appears to be by a certain artist when we feel that the painting as a whole is not by that artist. In this case, we would catalogue the painting as, for example, 20th Century School (tells you that we think the painting was made in this time period and is of this style), signed ‘Pablo Picasso’ (tells you that this is the way the painting is signed). Since we have not attributed the painting to Picasso as the artist, you can deduce that the work is some kind of copy. If we could identify the image as a real painting by Picasso, we would catalogue it as After Picasso.

Lined vs. Relined
Following the signature information we will say whether the painting has been lined. Lined means that an additional surface, usually canvas or linen, has been added to the back of the original canvas to stabilize it. Some people use the term Relined to mean the same thing, but by definition, Lined is the first layer added and Relined would be a second lining. In our Condition Reports we try to say how the painting has been lined, for example wax lined.

After the descriptive information, we list the dimensions of the work and the frame. For paintings, the dimensions are of the outer edges of the canvas where they wrap around the stretcher. If that dimension is not accessible, we will measure the sight dimensions, or the image dimensions of what is visible in the frame.

As we discussed above, Provenance is a very important piece of information when cataloguing paintings. We list Provenance in descending order from the oldest owner to the most recent. In addition to Provenance, we list Literature and Exhibition information. Literature is most likely a reference to the painting in a book on the artist or the artist’s Catalogue Raisonné. Exhibition information may include museum or gallery exhibitions of note.

Catalogue Note
Finally, we may write a Catalogue Note at the end of the entry to help explain something particular to or interesting about the painting or the artist. We also may mention who owned the painting and discuss how the work pertains to other similar works or to the body of the artist’s work as a whole.

We do not discuss the condition of the painting in the catalogue entry. Condition Reports are done at the time of cataloguing using a black light, and are available for each lot in the sale. Condition Reports for paintings contain information about lining, surface issues (cracquelure, lifting, paint loss, scuffs, scratches and soiling), as well as detailed information about holes, splits and tears, and whether they are backed, glued, and inpainted. Inpainting is described in detail to let a buyer know whether it is extensive or just in small, scattered areas. We are always happy to discuss condition reports on the telephone, or to provide more specific information and photographs.

In the next installment of Cataloguing Fine Art, we’ll discuss how we catalogue works on paper and prints.

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