Although Juliet may have opined when speaking of her lover Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” For serious collectors and art lovers; name association is an important consideration.
What you don’t know, can cost you.
When a new client calls to schedule an appraisal appointment, we ask them to tell us what they know about their collection and why an appraisal is being sought. Of course, we want to know approximately how many pieces we will be examining so that we can schedule the right amount of time to do the inspections. The other purpose of these questions is to get an initial idea about the style and quality of the art, at least from the owner’s perspective. Many times our clients are savvy collectors who have developed their connoisseurship over years of buying and have lots of knowledge about the pieces they own. Other times though, the calls come from new collectors or from those who have inherited items about which they have very little information. In either case, the first step to valuation is proper identification. We look at many factors—medium, size, condition, and date. But among all the qualities that contribute to the value of a piece, attribution to a well known artist is the most important factor. A beautiful unsigned still life painting might be valued at a few hundred dollars, but if it bears the name ‘Renoir’ or ‘Cezanne’ and can be legitimately attributed to one of those artists, the value might be over a million.
Why is attribution such an important factor in value determination?
It was not always the case. Prior to the Age of Enlightenment and the Renaissance, most artwork was produced by unknown craftsmen. Signatures were rare. When we encounter pieces from these early ages today, we judge them based on their own intrinsic qualities of beauty. But the Renaissance brought with it an interest in the individual and the “cult of personality” that grew up around certain heroic artists who seemed much more talented than others of their generation. Rather than attempt to copy a prototype as closely as possible, artists began to develop their own recognizable styles. And as the Renaissance brought higher education and more wealth to a wider group of people, the sources for patronage of the arts spread beyond the church and into the secular world. When there was a growing and ever more diverse base of patrons, it was important for the artist to build his reputation in order to catch the attention of potential new clients. One way of “advertising” the quality of one’s works was to sign completed pieces. From the 18th C. forward, it became more and more commonplace for an artist to sign his pieces.
The weight of a good signature.
Is there an actual boost to value for a signed painting over an unsigned one by the same artist? All other elements being equal, a signed piece of art will usually be valued higher than a comparable unsigned piece by the same artist. Collectors value signatures because the author is readily identifiable. If there are many known pieces by a given artist that are signed, the assumption will be that he or she normally did sign finished work. An unsigned piece, would therefore, be somewhat suspect. However, not all signatures add value to a piece of art. Some signatures are so illegible as to defy identification even after great amounts of research. Some are quite legible but do not trace back to a known artist. Almost every family can point to a grandmother, aunt or uncle who took some art classes and produced dozens of pieces, each lovingly and prominently signed. In addition, almost every 20th C. painting imported from a Chinese reproduction sweatshop bears a prominent signature. These apocryphal signatures are ‘westernized’ names that never trace to a known artist. To a trained appraiser these have strong identifying features and are easy to spot. However, the collecting public might more easily be taken in by a “signed original,” and be very disappointed to learn that the signature does not automatically mean that one has a valuable piece of art.
Is the signature authentic?
If a signature is to add value to a piece, it must first be judged legitimate itself. One must be wary of a fake or facsimile signature that has been added at some time after production of the piece. Because of the questions of authenticity that a fake signature calls into question, once discovered, a fake signature will usually lower the value of an art piece. Part of an appraiser’s job is to examine and assess the signature. Does it appear to be the handwriting of a known artist? Does the artwork style match the signature that is on it? Has it been applied by hand or been added photo-mechanically? In the case of an older canvas, does the signature appear to be integral with the painting or was it applied at some later date? In the case of a bronze or other cast sculpture, was the signature cast into the piece? Has the copyright run out on the sculpture making it legal for it to be re-cast with the signature intact? All of these questions must be answered before the appraiser decides whether or not a signature is reliable.
Trust but verify.
When one is considering a purchase of any piece of art, the level of attribution and the attendant guarantees, implied or written, should be taken into account. Does the gallery or auction house stand behind the level of attribution? What are the collector’s rights with regard to the authenticity of the piece? One must first understand some fairly subtle wording that has specific meaning among art professionals but can sometimes be overlooked by collectors. Good galleries should fully explain to a potential buyer what the terms “by,” “attributed to,” “after,” etc., mean. The invoice provided at the point of sale should specifically use terminology that defines the level of attribution. However, oftentimes it doesn’t. As appraisers, we have seen many purchase invoices of unsigned paintings and drawings that are listed as follows: A Lovely Meadow (title) / 24 x 30” / Oil on canvas / John Smith (Artist’s name) / $10,000 Many times the frames of the painting or drawing have been fitted with a prominent brass nameplate boldly stating the artist’s name; other times the name is hand-painted onto the liner of the frame. Now the piece might indeed be by the claimed artist or it may have no association with the artist at all. Perhaps it is a legitimate but unsigned example. Does the gallery guarantee the authenticity or is the nameplate there to lull an unsuspecting buyer into complacency about the authenticity of the piece? How has this unsigned painting been traced back to the named artist? Who stands behind its authenticity? These are legitimate questions that good dealers are happy to address with potential collectors. If a collector feels that the dealer is not being forthright about answering some of his or her concerns in this area, it is time to work with a different dealer.
Mind the details of description.
Auction houses have very specific rules about attribution. Gratefully, these are all clearly laid out in the terms of sale that are printed in each catalog. They vary somewhat from one auctioneer to another, but there is a good bit of overlap in the terminology. A collector should read all terms of sale carefully before making a purchase at auction. She/He should pay careful attention to the glossary of terms that sets out how the painting is being offered. (See inset glossary above). Auction houses can and do offer items for sale that range in association with a given artist from “by” the artist on down to a very loose association with the artist, like “style of.” The way a piece is listed in the catalog is very specific and the buyer’s rights are limited when qualifying terms are listed beside the artist’s name. Make sure you understand the terminology before bidding. Look closely at the signature on the next work of art you are contemplating for purchase. “Montague vs. Capulet” may not have held much importance for Juliet, but name attribution is a large consideration in the valuation of art.
By Brenda Simonson-Mohle