All About The Artist's Certificate of Authenticity

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Certificate of Authenticity is a bit like an artwork's birth certificate, passport and quality guarantee all rolled into one.

A Certificate of Authenticity (COA) provides a lot of concrete detail about a piece, but by existing for a particular piece, it says even more. An artwork that has a COA is one that is made by a professional practicing artist, not an amateur. It is a piece that potentially has collectible value. The Certificate adds a tangible credibility to the work. It can help the work hold its value.

The COA is held to be an indirect promise of quality. Art pieces that have a COA have usually been made by an artist who cares about their work, it's longevity and their collectors. The piece is likely to have been created from the best materials available, be designed to last and been created by an expert. Back to the concrete details, the Certificate will provide all the information on the medium(s) of the piece needed for conservation that might otherwise be lost forever.

Certificates protect the artist and the buyer by helping to prove that an artwork is original. Cheap copies sold without an artist's knowledge or consent are unfortunately common. Without a COA attached to the original this situation makes it next to impossible for the buyer to be confident of the value of the piece or for the artist to maintain their credibility and their livelihood.

As an art collector you really must only buy contemporary pieces that are backed by a Certificate of Authenticity. This helps ensure that what you have bought at a premium is genuine and not counterfeit. As an artist, do yourself a favour, be professional, and supply a detailed and complete COA for your buyers investment security and your own career protection. They are very popular right now amongst contemporary artists, but there are a few pertinent points to bear in mind.

What Is a Certificate of Authenticity?

Essentially, a COA is a document, created by the artist or someone who is an expert on the artist, which accompanies an artwork and contains all the information a collector could need to verify if the piece of art is genuine. Certificates of Authenticity are common for art and software. With art, they provide some guarantee of genuineness if they are complete and authored by an expert on the artist. Most often the COA is a paper document, but there has been a recent move toward digital certificates. Both are acceptable providing they are complete.

How to get a COA

A certificate of authenticity should be provided at the time of sale. For all sales of all original art. In fact, it should BE the sales receipt, not a separate document. High end art dealers view sales receipts signed by reputable gallerists or the artist themselves as reliable proof of genuineness. They view with great skepticism the sort of 'added on' made-up certificate with a decorative border supplied with an artpiece. That is because anyone can produce this sort of 'document'.

So when you receive the artwork, you should also receive it's completed COA as part of the sale invoice. Do not be fobbed off with promises for the certificate to be posted later. Always check that the original art you are buying comes with a complete and valid COA . It is OK to ask to see a sample of the certificate before purchasing. No certificate? How do you have any peace of mind that what you are buying and paying a premium for, is genuine? Return the artwork and get a refund if the seller you are dealing with is not forthcoming with a valid COA at the time of sale. At the very least you should receive an invoice or receipt for your purchase, the more detailed, the better.

What an authentic Certificate of Authenticity should include

  • It should be authored by the artist, or their publisher or dealer or agent and if the COA is authored by someone other than the artist, it should state who and what their relationship to the artist is and their full contact details.
  • Name of the artist and preferably their location and contact details (and web address).
  • Title of the artwork.
  • Date of completion. There are various dates that can be included, depending on the medium involved. For paintings, the date of completion. For prints there is the date of completion of the original, the date of this print edition and the date of signing the print. These all help art historians and collectors to understand the timeline of the artist’s work.
  • Medium. The materials used to create the artwork. For prints of an original artwork in another medium, both the medium of the original and the medium of the print should be listed. The exact materials used in creating the piece helps the collector to verify they have the authentic artwork, and greatly helps conservation decisions. This can include the paint or ink type, the printing device, the canvas or paper type, source and weight and any pertinent or known archival properties. Professional artists prefer to use professional grade materials and take pride providing a piece made for longevity.
  • Description or preferably an image of the artwork.
  • Artwork dimensions. This helps the buyer to check whether the art piece has been altered since it's completion. It also makes it easy for them to order a correctly sized frame.
  • Signature of the artist.
  • Copyright statement. The copyright holder should definitely be identified and possibly also the applicable law and any reproduction rights. It is possible that the work will be under a public license or only have some rights reserved. In this case, copying of the work may be permissible.
  • Extras which can be included are additional information on the techniques used to create the image, further information about the subject matter of the artwork, artist’s comments on the piece and for photos, details such as where the shot was taken, the GPS benchmark, date, time of day and camera used.

For prints, there are quite a number of extra details that should be included:

  • The number of this particular print within the edition and the edition size. ie 4/10 (print 4 of 10 prints)
  • Whether the edition is an open edition (more prints can be produced at any time) or limited.
  • The number of prints and proofs in the edition that are signed/numbered, signed only, and unsigned/unnumbered.
  • Whether the edition is a restrike or posthumous edition.
  • Whether the edition is part of a series of editions. eg artist proof, press proof, transfer, etc.
  • The status of the plate or master. Is it destroyed or on file? If the master has been destroyed then the edition is truly limited.
  • Name and location (and web address) of the Master printer / publisher.
  • Signature of the printmaker

Certificates for art by really famous artists should include a few extra details on top of those mentioned already. ALL limited edition prints by well-known artists are documented in books called catalogues raisonne. If a catalogue raisonne exists for an artist, the corresponding catalogue number or entry for the work art in question MUST be noted on the certificate of authenticity. You can also expect to find the names of previous owners, names of dealers or galleries that have sold the art, and sometimes information about auctions where the art was sold and the reference books that list the artwork.

Caveats to beware of

Valid certificates of authenticity state that the artpiece is absolutely and unquestionably by the artist who has signed it. If the certificate has any conditional statements such as "in our considered opinion..." or "we believe that..." these should ring your alarm bells. These statements are warning you that the art may not be genuine.

A statement that a work of art is genuine is NOT valid unless made by the artist or a respected authority on the artist. That person's qualifications and contact details should be stated on the certificate and be easily verifiable. When the contact information on a COA is out of date, check with a current authority on the artist to find out if this old certificate is valid. They will know if the COA author was a legitimate authority.

A certificate with illegible or incomplete contact information for the certificate author is never acceptable. A certificate with only an unidentifiable signature is not valid.

It is worth noting that there is no currently official body or legal binding for COAs. Anyone can write one. That's why inspecting the Certificate of Authenticity before a purchase is so important. It allows the potential buyer to check the credentials of the certificate's author and the details of the document. Not all COAs are created equal, so if any of the information on the certificate doesn't add up, it's your risk.

Remember, ideally the COA should BE the sales receipt, not a separate document. High end art dealers view sales receipts signed by reputable gallerists or the artist themselves as reliable proof of genuineness. They view with great skepticism the sort of 'added on' made-up certificate with a decorative border supplied with an artpiece. That is because anyone can produce this sort of 'document'.

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This article is one in an ongoing series of technical articles for artists, all archived together and accessible from here. The topics range from details on materials, to the business of art, to specific art techniques. Please make use of this resource.

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1 thoughts

  1. Great article and resource for artists. This was very helpful in creating a certificate for my sold artworks. Thank you!


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