Good Life

Art & Antiques | Black light can’t do it all

Over the years, many of you have told me how antique dealers and other resellers, helpful neighbors and even your cousin Joe — your family’s self-proclaimed antiques expert — have suggested some interesting testing methods to help identify your antiques.

I think it is funny that this testing information is provided to buyers only after you bought an object. Why don’t the sellers try these tests themselves before they sell the object to you? If their test provides certain results, they could have done what was required in the first place — correctly identified that object before they sold it to you.

Shedding black light

I think people just like the idea of using a black light. It’s one of the favorite tools of the art and antiques world. It seems to represent a cross between Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone and the TV show “CSI.” In the case of antiques, it isn’t “CSI,” but rather ASI, or Antique Scene Investigation.

OK, so you purchase a black light. You hold it up to that mysterious painting — and now what? What should you see? A hidden message? A never-before-seen signature? The black light might reveal something previously unseen, but what does that really tell you about identification or value? Not much.

In all fairness to black lights, they do help reveal glued repairs on porcelains, new pigments or paint cracks on works of art, and other hard-to-see elements when employing only the naked eye. After you’ve used that revealing black light, most people still need an expert to review your piece.

Sometimes the original artist painted over another painting simply because he or she couldn’t afford a new canvas. We’ve all reused things, and artists are no different. Also, over the years, paintings get “helped” or “enhanced” by Aunt Sue who added a wedding ring on the hand of a sitter in a family portrait or an extra leaf or two to a tree in an old landscape painting. Still, not much help with identification. Trained appraisers like me look at the back of the painting and the foundation of a work — in natural light.

At my appraisal events, I try to contain myself when someone offers me a black light to identify an American painting that was made in 1990.

I think back to my experience in academic institutions and museums and I can recall very few situations when I or my colleagues relied solely on a black light for identification purposes. Black lights, fun as they are, will only provide part of the big picture. Need to know the real deal about art and antiques? Ask an expert to take a look.