How to Research a Work of Art
This page is designed to assist people with conducting research on artists and art objects. Before beginning your research, gather as much information about the work as possible, such as the following:
- Artist or culture
- Title or subject
- Medium (oil, acrylic, bronze, ink, etching, etc.) and support (canvas, panel, paper, etc.)
- Date or approximate date
- Dimensions (height x width x depth)
- Artist’s signature and date, usually found on the front of the work
- Provenance (ownership history)
- Where and when did you acquire the work? If you inherited it, how long has it been in your family?
- Labels and inscriptions
- These may provide clues to the work’s provenance. On paintings, drawings, and prints, they are usually found on the back of the artwork. On sculptures, labels may be underneath, on the base of the work.
- Consider whether the work may be a reproduction rather than an original work of art. Real or Pro offers tips for identifying reproductions.
Below is a list of resources that may be helpful in beginning your research.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, contain a useful guide for researching art and values.
For basic information about artists (dates, variant name spellings, nationality, and bibliographic citations), the Union List of Artist Names is freely available online through the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
Biographical information about artists (especially American artists) can also be accessed through AskArt.
Artist dictionaries are often the best way to find information about more obscure artists. The Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery list the most common dictionaries, which can be consulted in an art or museum library.
They also feature a list of resources that may be helpful if you do not know the artist’s name, but the work contains a monogram or initials.
The complete works of some artists are catalogued in catalogues raisonné, or an annotated catalogue. In some cases, only one medium (such as oil paintings or prints) may be cataloged in this manner. Catalogues raisonné are typically compiled by the artist’s estate or another expert on a particular artist’s oeuvre. To find out whether a catalogue raisonné exists for a particular artist, contact a fine arts or museum library, such as IU's Fine Arts Library, or search their online catalog.
For Indiana Artists
For information about artists active in Indiana, the following organizations may be able to help:
Brown County Art Gallery and Museum
Indiana State Museum
The following selected bibliography on Indiana art and artists may also guide your research:
- Burnet, Mary Q. Art and Artists of Indiana. New York: Century Co., 1921 (reprinted: Evansville, IN: Whipporwill Publishing, 1985).
- Letsinger-Miller, Lyn. The Artists of Brown County. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
- Mirages of Memory: Two Hundred Years of Indiana Art. South Bend: University of Notre Dame, 1977.
- Newton, Judith Vale, and Carol Weiss. A Grand Tradition: The Art and Artists of the Hoosier Salon, 1925‒1990. Indianapolis: Hoosier Salon Patrons Association, 1993.
- Newton, Judith Vale. Skirting the Issue: Stories of Indiana’s Historical Women Artists. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2004.
Resources for Prints
For information on printmaking terminology, techniques, and connoisseurship, see the Spencer Museum of Art’s guide to works on paper.
Oeuvre-catalogues for prints and other research resources have been compiled by the Print Council of America.
Art museum staff members are not authorized to provide appraisals for works of art. However, resources for conducting your own research on values are provided by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Getty Research Institute.
Comparing your art to similar works recently sold at auction can provide you with an estimated value. Auction records can be searched for free (although registration is required) in the Blouin Art Sales Index.
Appraisers can be located through the following organizations:
Appraisers Association of America
386 Park Avenue South, Suite 2000
New York, NY 10016
American Society of Appraisers (ASA)
11107 Sunset Hills Road, Suite 310
Reston, VA 20190
International Society of Appraisers
303 West Madison Street, Suite 2650
Chicago, IL 60606
Understanding & Researching Provenance
Tracing the provenance (ownership history) of works in your possession is important for determining authenticity, value, and establishing legal title to your art. For information on researching provenance and for historical background on the widespread looting of art during World War II, see the Eskenazi Museum of Art's Nazi-Era Provenance Research Project.
If you acquire a work of art and have concerns about its past, you may want to contact the Art Loss Register for assistance.
Caring for Your Works of Art
Tips regarding the proper care, handling, and conservation of works of art can be found on the website of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery also provide a list of contact information for additional conservation centers and a bibliography of conservation-related sources, along with guidelines for documenting works in your possession.
Resources at Indiana University’s Herman B Wells Library
If you live in the Bloomington area, the Herman B Wells Library at Indiana University has many useful reference materials.
The fine arts collection located on the ninth floor of the Wells Library, subscribes to numerous databases, some of which you may access remotely with an IU-Bloomington username and passphrase. Otherwise, it may be necessary to visit the library (or another art library in your area) in person to access these databases. Some databases, however, are freely available to the public.
Art, Architecture and Design Librarian
IU Wells Library