Understanding art: A matter of perspective

by Bennett Tiglao, Seattle Goodwill
January 13, 2017

Walton Butts ArtBy now, most of us have come across stories of people picking up bargain-basement paintings at thrift stores and garage sales only to find later that they’ve been sitting on highly valued works of art by notable artists.

While these pieces often are subjected to exhaustive verification procedures, many buyers still end up the owners of valuable paintings worth a small fortune, which is not bad considering most shoppers were just looking to find a painting to fit their living room color scheme.

Although finding a masterpiece done by an art legend is rare, finding a painting or sculpture that pleases you aesthetically for a great price is common. The value of art is completely subjective. To one individual, a piece might mean nothing, but to another it could represent a time in one’s life or trigger emotions and inspire ideas. 

Seattle Goodwill often has a healthy stream of donated art either in our stores or online. You’ll find the higher valued pieces on our eBay store and on our online store shopgoodwill.com. The pieces listed online are generally researched by our trained staff and for the most part recognized as art by notable artists.

Marc Chagall, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso are some well-known artists who’ve had pieces pass through our donation stations. Also, here in the Northwest, we get plenty of art by local artists which is known for various art styles including native/tribal, modernism and art glass. 

Here are some tips of what to look for when art shopping:

Original artwork

Is this artwork something that the artist physically created, or is it a work made later, or an exact reproduction? Many artists would create a piece and later allow for copies to be mass-produced, typically in the form of prints. This isn’t to be confused with something that the artist has signed, which would indicate that they knew of their production.

Signed artwork.

Is there a signature somewhere on it? Signatures are usually on the lower-front corner or upper-back part of the piece. Is it signed by hand or as part of a machine process/stamp? Signatures can be hard to read. Authentication is challenging. Many 18-20th century artists produced hundreds of prints, some as part of a series or sketches and many are hand signed.

Numbered artwork.  

Is this piece one of many, but with a specific number assigned to it? Artists often produced prints of their work with limited edition runs, and each is hand-signed and numbered by the artist: #12/250, etc.


Anything created with an artistic intent could be considered art. Everyone has specific taste – make sure to separate what you like from what may or may not have high value. (For example, some artists were not particularly famous until after their death, including Vincent van Gogh.)


Is this piece odd, weird, or interesting? We get a lot of landscapes, bowls of fruit and portraits of people.

It’s not all about monetary value! If a piece still has a price tag, that is essentially a brand new price and not to account for age, artist or desirability. Sometimes pieces of low financial value have stronger historical value. Not everything in a museum is worth millions.

Sometimes great artwork has a terrible frame and sometimes bad artwork may have an amazing frame.

Period-related terms get thrown around a lot, but often are as follows:

  • Contemporary: Made today, or within the last decade or two.
  • Modern: An art movement most closely associated with 1900-1960.
  • Post-modern: An art movement most closely associated with 1960/70-2000.
  • Vintage: 20+ years old (pre-1997) usually 1920-1990’s.
  • Antique: 100+ years old (approx.).
  • Retro: Anything in the past, typically associated with style pre-1990


Bennett spends his working hours as an Admin Assistant with Seattle Goodwill’s Online Department. A jack-of-all-trades and a master of none, he enjoys photography, riding motorcycles and working on projects around the house.

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