Searching for Paint
During 2009, over 12% of the top 200 search phrases on Dig Antiques included the word "paint". Examples include "painted cupboard", "blue paint", "painted pantry box", and "paint decorated". We also saw the top searches include a specific color such as "blue panty box" or "red dry sink". As of January 19, 2010, searching for the term "paint" on Dig Antiques returns 4047 results across 300 antique websites.
Searching for paint is still a favorite pastime for collectors and dealers. Finding an antique with great paint is tough - and it seems to be getting tougher. So many pieces were stripped of their original surface, heavily used (and abused) or simply stored in a destructive manner. When you find a piece with original paint in great condition it's such a joy. You want to guard its future from the further ravages of time.
In early America, painters moved from town to town mixing their heavily guarded paint formulas, both oil and milk based, as they went. Most did not sign their pieces and that makes it especially challenging to attribute a specific artist to a specific piece. Most often the attribution happens indirectly through tax and client household records kept at the time. It is a time intensive process with the majority of artists remaining unknown.
The value of a painted piece is heavily tied to its surface as well as its form. An experienced eye can evaluate if the paint is original. An old painted surface is dry. The less wear the more valuable the piece, although many collectors do appreciate some wear in a piece. For instance, an old painted cupboard with paint worn off or perhaps some dirt ground in to the surface (aka wear) around the knob means the piece was used and makes the rest of the surface more authentic.
Over time paint oxidizes and can fade. You may see a piece where the outer surface that has been consistently exposed to light appears to be a different color then an area that's been covered. This is totally normal and in fact shows that the piece hasn't been touched-up. An old painted surface may also dry to the point where it begins to crack. These cracks are also perfectly acceptable. Some forgers try to fake this craquelure but the cracks are more uniform on the surface of these fakes while on a genuine antique surface the craquelure is less consistent.
There are many good books and articles that make great references if you're interested in reading more about original paint. Here are just a few: