There are many aspects of an oil painting that may be able to give you an idea of their age. This is often an important process to establish whether a painting is antique or contemporary. Our studio often comes across paintings that may appear to be genuinely of their era upon first glance, but following investigation our conservators often see signs that they are in fact modern forgeries or innocent copies of an earlier style. 

Sophie assessing a paintingAbove: a painting being assessed in our studio

Our conservation team offers technical analysis of your painting, allowing for further investigation should these tips not prove conclusive. This article will give you some insights into the most common signs that a painting is not as old as it may seem as well as the many services available in our studio to help you gain a scientific glimpse into the history of your artwork. 

Above: our conservator assessing a painting under UV light


A painting’s surface may discolour through age or contamination, although we sometimes come across paintings from the early 20th century that have purposely been discoloured with a yellow-tinted varnish to appear older or to achieve an antique style for the interior they are composed for. When purposeful yellow varnish is removed, the painting underneath may appear to be strikingly more modern than anticipated, with amateaur painting techniques more readily on display than they were when hidden beneath their faux antique surface. Take a close look at your painting for an idea of whether or not the painting style shows professional skill, a modern artwork that has been aged may also have a machine-cut frame or backing material that does not appear to be as old as the painting surface. 

Sabine women copyAbove: The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David next to a modern copy with aged varnish

Cracks can also help you to discover the age of a painting. Over time, oil paint begins to crack along the grain of the canvas, producing a fine pattern of what is known as ‘craquelure’. The canvas may have been pressed upon in the past, leaving the appearance of spider-web like cracks. Oil paint on a wooden panel may also have cracks running along the structure. The lack of cracking, or very uniform cracks that don’t appear to have depth, may point to a modern artwork. Through technical analysis, our team has discovered in some instances that cracks may have even been painted on by the artist, either to create a convincing forgery or to directly copy an antique style to provide a historic prop or interior design piece. 

Cracks close upAbove: a close up of deep cracks on an 18th century oil painting 

Panels and stretcher bars

The most obvious sign of a new painting is in the machine-cut edges of a wooden panel or stretcher bars. This type of technology would not have been possible until the industrial revolution or through 20th century machinery. Machine cuts will appear to be very straight and uniform, unlike the handmade stretcher bars and panels of previous centuries. It is unlikely that these parts of a painting would have been historically replaced. Some copies may try to create the hand-made style of previous eras, our team has come across purposeful hacking at the back of a panel to make it seem well-worn, but this attempt alongside machine-cut edges can expose the piece as a modern painting. 

Artwork assessment Julia and SophieAbove: our team assessing a painting in our studio

Masterpiece copies

It is not usually a purposeful forgery when a painting is a copy of a great masterpiece or the popular work of a famous artist. Students have for centuries copied the great works of art that have come before them. It is only when somebody has tried to create a new version in the style of a great artist that they may be trying to hoodwink the viewer, in this case an expert can look into the brush strokes of the piece to determine whether it is genuine and our conservators can take pigment samples for age analysis. 

RubensAbove: an original painting by Rubens next to a copy that was produced for a homeless charity

If your artwork seems familiar, it may be worth conducting a Google reverse image search. This allows you to see visually similar artworks from across the internet and will be able to tell you what your artwork is a copy of. Some very skilled copies can still have value, especially if they are of an era close to the original masterpiece. 

Technical reports and professional investigation

Our conservators are able to arrange for the full investigation of your artwork, including the following services:

If you are uncertain about the age of your painting or need to have indications of age for professional documentation, our team is able to provide you with information on era, materials and art historical style. This can be useful prior to the sale of an artwork or to help in the application of conservation funding for future restoration work. Our team is able to provide a full report or a focus on relevant areas as required by your interest in the project.

Pigment MicroscopeAbove: pigments taken from oil paintings under microscope to determine age and material

How can we help?

For more information on technical reports and the historic assessment of oil paintings, please speak to our helpful team. Email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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