It’s like holding a match to a work of art.

“When you pass on a painting, it’s like burning it,” Graydon Sikes recently told me. Sikes is director of paintings and prints for Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio. We were discussing the auction company’s recent sale of fine and decorative art.

I had asked Sikes what makes one painting bring a top-dollar price while another image doesn’t fare so well. It was an open-ended question, but Sikes didn’t need to think before he answered. There are some basics involved. Here’s a summary.

* It needs to be a quality example. The best artist can create a painting that’s only average. Yet great work, even by an unknown painter, is still great work.

* Three words: Condition, condition, condition. Art buyers can be as picky as anyone with a checkbook. Condition is paramount. A painting that’s damaged or one with repairs or touchups is likely to fall in line behind similar work in pristine, original shape.

* Provenance has power. Buyers like to know where a piece has been. If a painting was sold by a major auction house, had been part of a prominent exhibit, or came out of a respected collection, that’s a plus.

* On the other hand… quiet is good. Like being in the sun, too much exposure can be a bad thing. Being offered at auction and passed, that’s about the worst. The no-sale gives subsequent potential buyers the idea there’s something wrong with the work. It might just have been the seller had high expectations and set an unattainable reserve, but the painting still has a strike against it.

Summer Storm on the Naragansett Shore by William Trost Richards (American, 1833-1905) sold for $13,200 at a recent Cowan’s auction. Oil on cradled panel, the work was signed and measured 9″ x 15″ (sight). It is an example of a painting with the right characteristics. “The best stuff will still do very well,” said Graydon Sikes. (Photo: Cowan’s Auctions)