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Cataloguing Fine Art, Part Two: Works on Paper

By Lisa Thomas

The cataloguing of works on paper has some similarities to the cataloguing of paintings, and some differences, both in content and in definition. In Part Two of our series on how we catalogue Fine Art for auction at Stair Galleries, we will look at how we catalogue drawings, watercolors, monotypes and prints.

Artist’s Name and Dates
The first piece of information we provide in our catalogue description for a work on paper 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.

Dine Heart JIM DINE (b. 1935): HEART FOR FILM FORUM,Lot 93, December 6, 2014 auction.


Attributed to the Artist
As with paintings, when we are not comfortable with an artist attribution, we will say Attributed to the artist. Many works on paper are finished works and signed by the artist. However, some drawings and watercolors may be working ideas and not complete, and they may not be signed. Without provenance information, we will almost always catalogue unsigned works as Attributed to.



Studio of the Artist
Studio of the Artist, Manner of the Artist and Circle of the Artist are used less frequently with works on paper than with paintings. More often, we will use Continental School, European School or American School to give an indication of place and time period for a drawing or watercolor. We may use the term Style of to help give more information about when and where a work was made. For example, a drawing that appears to be French, from the 18th Century and similar in style to François Boucher will be catalogued as Style of Boucher. Modern and Contemporary works on paper without attribution are catalogued as 20th Century School.

Boucher STYLE OF FRANÇOIS BOUCHER (1703-1770): FEMME ET ENFANT AVEC RAISINS,Lot 658, May 17-18, 2014 auction.


After the Artist
We use the term After an artist very infrequently with drawings. After an artist for a unique work means that it is copying a known work of art by the named artist that can be identified. We do, however, use the term After with prints. When we use this term to catalogue a lithograph or engraving, we are saying that the image is by the named artist, but the print was made in an edition of multiple copies. Usually these prints are copying the image from a painting. Sometimes they are authorized editions by the artist and/or his/her publisher, and are signed and numbered. Other times they are larger, unsigned editions that the artist was not a part of. In our cataloguing, we try to give the buyer as much information as we can to help sort out the specifics of each work. For artists whose work has been documented in a catalogue raisonné, we can reference this information. In other cases, we have to rely on information from past sales of the print and our knowledge about specific editions.

Thomas Cole AFTER THOMAS COLE (1801-1848): A DISTANT VIEW OF NIAGARA FALLS ,Lot 824, October 25-26, 2014 auction.


We provide titles for works on paper in the same way that we do paintings. If the work is titled by the artist or has a gallery label assigning a title to it, we use that title. If not, we assign a title that helps to identify the work and is in line with titles for similar works from the period. As with paintings, modern and contemporary works are often titled Abstraction or Untitled.

Because prints are made in editions with anywhere from 2 to 2,000 copies, we can usually identify the title of a print by finding another copy in past sales records or through research. Many artists have catalogue raisonnés for their graphic works, and we try to reference that material when available.

Medium and Date
Works on paper are made using many different media. The most common are pencil, ink, watercolor, pastel and gouache, and they are often combined in the same work. We list the medium used unless there are three or more, in which case we will say “mixed media.” Sometimes we say “mixed media” when we cannot distinguish the individual medium used in a particular work. For prints, we list the technique used: lithograph, screenprint, engraving, etching, drypoint, etc. Monotypes are unique works on paper, but they are printed and are categorized as part of an artist’s printed work. There are many printing techniques, and they are sometimes combined as well. With historical and botanical prints, we often see engraving with hand-coloring, or etching with gouache highlights.

Following the medium, we list the type of paper the work is on. The paper itself is an important part of a drawing or print. The type of paper, its age and condition, help us to attribute or substantiate attribution of works. Certain artists used particular types of paper, and this knowledge helps us to identify works. For example, Audubon prints exist in several different editions and it is the paper that helps to identify one edition from the other. In general, we list the type of paper as laid, wove or handmade. If it is a print on Chine or Japan and the paper helps to identify the work, we will list that as well. For prints, we also list information about the margins of the paper. Whether the work has full margins or has been trimmed is important information to have. Many contemporary works are printed to the edge of the sheet of paper, and in those cases, we will say “the full sheet.”

Older papers often have watermarks that help to date the paper, the work or to identify the previous owner. If we can identify the watermark, we will list it. If we see a watermark in the paper but cannot identify it, we will say “watermark indistinct.” Sometimes the paper will have an inkstamp on it from a particular collector or collection. If the inkstamp can be identified in Frits Lugt’s Les Marques de Collections, we will reference it.

The date of the work is listed after the medium and paper type. Many prints are dated along with the signature and numbering. For drawings, we use the date on the work, on a label on the back, or a circa date.

We describe how a unique work on paper is signed in the same way that we do a painting. We list the signature in single quotes exactly as it is written on the work. Prints are almost always signed and numbered in pencil in the bottom margin. Prints are usually numbered out of a total edition size (i.e. 20/50). But there also exist artist’s proofs, printer’s proofs, hors commerce and dedication copies for many editions. These are written in the bottom margin as “AP”, “PP”, or inscribed to a person. Hors commerce copies are inscribed “HC”, meaning “outside of the numbered edition.”

After the descriptive information, we list the dimensions of the work and the frame. For works on paper, we try to list the dimensions of the sheet of paper when possible. For prints, we also list the dimensions of the plate size when it helps to identify the work.

We list provenance information for works on paper in the same way that we do paintings, in descending order from the oldest owner to the most recent. Catalogue raisonné information for prints is listed following the title.

Catalogue Note
We may write a note for a work that is important or interesting in some way. We may also mention when a drawing was done as a study for a painting.

We do not discuss the condition of works in the catalogue entry. The condition of works on paper is very important and can greatly affect the value of the work. We do detailed condition reports on works on paper out of the frame when possible. These reports will include information about margin size, staining (light- and mat), splits, tears and paper losses (and whether/how they have been repaired), and the overall condition of the paper. The media used in works on paper is not as stable as paint and can suffer change due to poor framing, climate fluctuations and UV exposure. If the colors have faded or changed due to external conditions, we will list that. As always, we are happy to discuss condition reports on the telephone, or to provide additional photographs and more specific information.

In the next installment of Cataloguing Fine Art, we’ll discuss how we catalogue sculpture.

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