I’d like to show you how I decipher a difficult signature on a work of art.
Here I use a work I found at a local thrift store as illustration. I found this painting simply signed “A(space)riel,” with a date of 1968. I eventually found this artist as a midcentury modern painter located in New Zealand.
First, I drew, as accurately as I could, a copy of the signature in the artist’s handwriting style. I paid close attention to the spacing of the letters.
I saw that this artist’s hand was rounded, no corners, and that each letter was given the allotted space. The “i” had a short space; the capital “A” a big space. Therefore, the large gap between the “A” and the “r” had to have contained a larger rounded letter.
I tried a rounded “U,” and it seemed to be logical, as Auriel is indeed a name, albeit a first one.
Next I looked at the date next to the name.
The date matches the style of the period. In 1968, this work would have been very forward leaning. It is modern for its time and indicates that this artist may have painted other geometric style works in the mid-1960s.
An artist who can paint a good abstracted still life probably learned to paint very abstract geometrical non-realistic compositions too, in a flat picture plane.
Now I knew a name, a date, a style.
Next I used three of my favorite databases, each with their own assets: ArtPrice, AskArt and ArtNet.
Some of these will direct you only if you have an accurate spelling of an artist’s name but others will suggest alternative names.
One of them has a search box for just first names.
Trying that, I found about 10 artists with the first name Auriel, and knowing the style of the work and date of the work, I could narrow it down to those (about 20) living in 1968 and painting in a modernist style.
Some of these sites have a thumbnail example of each work, which pops up when I click my mouse over the names, so I looked for very abstracted work in simple bold colors.
Sure enough, I found an Auriel Shearer who painted in that style, from New Zealand of all places.
Now I looked for the dates this artist lived (find obit pages to do so). I learned that if Auriel Shearer painted this work, she was 43 at the time, having been born in 1925 and died in 2016. My judgement of this painting is that this is mature work by a career artist. (Check!)
This artist’s files are housed in a small museum in Auckland, New Zealand. The files contain a record of a career in art. She worked at her craft and usually that results in sales.
I surmise, however, that because of the art market in New Zealand in the mid 1960s that she may not have been collected broadly. So I do not search the major auction houses for evidence of sales because major auction houses only carry works they think can sell for more than $1,000.
So I did a general Google search, noting that various “Everything but the House” sites have sold works by this artist, and I found two works selling in the forward-thinking college town of Stamford, Conn. I found the value of the work at $400-600.
A signature on a work in art history is recent – dating to the 15th century during the Renaissance, when individual talents were recognized above and beyond who commissioned the work or where it was.
Think of a work for a church in previous eras, not signed. In fact, a pre-Renaissance artist would never have thought of signing art for a church.
Not only were artists beginning to sign work in the 15th century, but collectors were often proud that they could afford to buy an “expensive” artist’s work and wanted bragging rights.
Signatures are not just proof of workmanship, but also can mark, by changes, a distinctive new era in the artist’s career or genre, as a Picasso signature does. Even the placement of a signature can add to a composition.
Typically an unsigned canvas means that the work was not considered finished, but that is not always the case. In the 1950-1980s those who taught abstract painting often said a signature may deface a clean work.
Some artists simply choose not to sign.
But deciphering a signature, if selling a work, can mean the difference of thousands of dollars.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.