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Featured Article/Paper Number 6

by Dr. J. Darragh M. Elliott, M.Sc., Ph.D.


For some peculiar reason, known only to artists, many do not even think of signing their completed works. The art sits around in their inventory waiting to be sold and many are sold by the artist without a signature. In some cases the unsold works remain in the inventory for years, or they are given away, or the artist passes away and the works were never signed.

Within another area, the artist completes the work, places a final coat of varnish on it, whether oil or acrylic on canvas, etc., and then leaves the work. Then they sell it at a later date and sign it at the time of the sale. They might also place a coat of varnish over the signature when signed at a later date. Possibly, in this instance, they do not want to sign it for some security reason and therefore, leave it unsigned.

Another area may be that the artist does not think that the work is good enough to sign or it is only a preliminary drawing and doesn’t need to be signed. Within any of these events a problem is created possibly, for the artist, but more than likely for the purchaser at some point down the road.

Today, times have changed from those of the British Social Scene where many artists did not sign their works of art, and you were expected to know who the artist was by the mannerism of the painting. As in historical times, there are still the copyists out there, but without a signature, any signature can be added or, even without the work being originally signed, but signed at a later date, this signature can then easily be removed, and a different signature can be added as is most often the case.

From the purchasers perspective, the problem does not occur until the purchaser wants to sell the work. Or in some cases the work is sold at auction by the purchaser, relative or by some other purchaser or owner down the road. These create a number of problems. Without the work being signed, the auction gallery is not going to say that the work is by a certain artist, unless they can get the work fully authenticated. This can take a lot of time, and sometimes can be expensive. In many instances, they are just not going to bother, and simply list the work in their catalog as, that of the American School, British School etc., and place a estimate as to what they think it will reach at auction as a school or in the case of a decorative sale, a decorative work. This of course is the lowest estimate going.

On the other hand, if the artist after completing the work signs it at a later date, the work can be known as having a signature added. This means, that again the signature has to be authenticated or, the work carries a lower estimate.

Another instance that actually happened within my own experience is, I purchased a beautiful still life of flowers in a Delft vase. This was quite a large work and in a beautiful frame. However, when I checked out the signature with a ultra violet or “black light”, the signature came up jet black. I automatically knew that the signature had been added and with rightful suspicion, I suspected that more than likely the signature on the painting was not that of the artist as stated within the auction catalog. There was no authentication of the painting that was sold with the painting, so I returned it the next day and my money was refunded. The consignor had the painting returned with the statement that it was probably a fake. This of course, was of no benefit to the consignor from a monetary perspective, and was in fact a detriment. As the work had been sold at auction and returned, it became a “stale work” and no other auction house of any consequence would want it. Particularly, the auction house would not want to have the reputation of selling stale or faked works of art that they knew beforehand, had a problem concerning the work. This would mean that the owner of the painting would have a very difficult time in selling the work or could not sell the work, as being that of the named artist and could only sell the work for its decorative value. In comparison to a fully authenticated work, there naturally is a big difference in price.

Even when an artist signs a completed work at a later date, this signature is going to turn black when viewed under a ultra violet light and then suspicions are created. Again, these can not only be problems for the purchaser or owner, but also for the artist, if it is a contemporary work.


Some artists are known to have used a monogram or a specific design instead of their signature, and some artists, over the years, have changed their signature and their works can carry as many as four or five different signatures or monograms. It is important for the artist to stay with one main signature or monogram. Simply put, different signatures or monograms can only serve to confuse the issue and can result in the work not appearing to be an authentic work by the artist.

By virtue of having a purchase and sale invoice, and depending upon the value the work, it may be possible to insure the work. But if the insurance company requires an appraisal of the work, any appraiser is not likely going to value the work even at the purchase price, unless the work can be authenticated. Here again, in most instances the artist has to be contacted, unless a reputable authentication can be otherwise obtained at additional and unnecessary expense, and/or the artist noted on the original invoice, has to certify that the work was created by the same artist. If the artist cannot be contacted for a number of reasons, then the valuator whomever that may be, has no choice, but to value the work as an unsigned work. Then in most instances, it can only be valued as to its decorative value. This more than likely will be a lot less value than that as stated on the invoice. Unsigned, or school works do rise in value over time that require other factors to be taken into consideration as to when the work was purchased.

Another problem can occur if the work is taken outside of the locale where it was originally purchased. Particularly, if it went into another area of the country or to another country. Now, either a reputable authenticator has to be located within the original or new locale or, the art gallery has to be contacted, and they may not be at the same address as shown on the invoice, they may no longer exist or, the artist has to be located, and the artist may not be at the same address or exist either. All of these problems cost time and money.

Assuming that a number of years pass and the owner wants the work appraised. Here again, unless the aforementioned criteria can be met, the work has to be valued for its decorative value only.

Over the years of hard work, the artist may become a well recognized and renowned artist. Now any work that he or she created has greater value. Even drawings have a greater value, and that value would more than likely, be a lot more than that when they were originally created. Further, more than likely, by this time there are collectors of the artists works. If they are still in the inventory and unsigned, many of the above problems can occur. While the artist may figure that the inventory is worth $X, in reality, it may not be worth $X, because they do not carry an original signature. All of these are reasons, as to why an artist should sign every work that is created, when it is created including; preliminary works, sketches and drawings. All of these can have a lot of value to a collector at some point in the future as the collector may also want early works by the same artist to complete their collection.


As with the running of any business, there is such a thing as inventory control. With respect to only created works, these should be filed under the month and year created. Many artists also date their works, as well as signing them. The date can be the year of the creation of the work such as, ’98 or 1998. Naturally, for valuation purposes, it is much easier for some future appraiser, art or auction gallery to provide either a replacement, sales value or a auction estimate, if the full year (1998) is indicated.

In addition to all of the above, a title of the work can also support the value. Otherwise, a title has to be created by an appraiser, art or an auction gallery for descriptive purposes. More than likely, the artist would like the correct title of their work to remain with the work. Consequently, it only requires a few seconds to write on the front or back of the work the title of the work. If a sculpture, somewhere on the sculpture, the title of the work should be easily seen. Particularly, if the created work is of a known subject, it can provide a historical value in the future. A good example of this could be, New York Harbor 1998. In 2098 the historical relevance has been established, as one can then see what the New York Harbor looked like in 1998. Now the artist has created a work not only of a cultural value, but of a historical value for future generations and for the preservation of the culture of his or her own country. Whether the artist realizes it or not, the artist can be contributing to society both now and in the future.


Everyone likes to have a story attached to a work of art. The history of a work of art begins with the artist. Further, the history of the work, can enhance the value of the work. Therefore, apart from every work created, it is prudent that the artist create a historical record of his or her achievements in the art field to the date of the creation of the work of art. This can easily be printed, if only on a sheet of paper, and does not necessarily have to be that of a fancy four color brochure. Again this should be attached to the back of the work at the time it is created. It can even be placed inside or on the bottom of a sculpture. When the work is sold, an updated version can also be attached. Now, the artist has started the historical record of provenance of the created work. Again, this applies to all drawings and sketches as well.


In subsequent articles, we will be discussing various topics of marketing the artists works, obtaining recognition within reference books, sales indexes and elsewhere, etc.

However, in this instance, assume for a moment, that the purchaser of a valuable work of contemporary art from a artist or a art dealer, purchased the work from a reputable gallery in Carmel, California. Suppose that the purchaser did not live in California or moved to South Carolina. Then at some point in the future, for one reason or another, the purchaser or a subsequent owner wants to sell the work of art.

The purchaser can take the work of art to an art gallery for a possible consignment, or place it for sale at a auction gallery or advertise it for sale privately. At this point in time, what is the work of art worth? How does the purchaser or owner go about establishing a value and a consequential selling price for the work of art? Particularly, if the work is not signed or, if there is no provenance attached to the work of art.

If the purchaser takes the work of art to an art gallery or to an auction gallery, and if the purchaser is lucky enough to still have the original invoice from the art dealer in Carmel, the art or auction gallery may contact the art dealer in Carmel to ascertain what the price of the works of the artist are currently being sold by the gallery. But what if the gallery in Carmel is no longer in business? Then what? Again it comes down to a decorative value. The purchaser cannot really substantiate the value even if he has an invoice, as the value of works of art can rise and fall with the economy. The purchaser is now in the position that if the art or auction gallery wants to take advantage of the situation, they are easily able to do so by stating that the work of art has no real value or only a very small value.

Now perhaps the best move at this point is for the purchaser to turn to an appraiser to establish a responsible value. Of most importance, as in all cases within the appraisal of works of art, an independent art appraiser should be used, but as an example particularly, in this case, the independent appraiser should be contacted.

In this instance, at the beginning, the appraiser has nothing to work with, except the work of art, signed or unsigned and with or without any provenance. The appraiser will make a reasonable attempt to locate the source of the work of art, and if the appraiser cannot locate the source, and there is no provenance attached to the work of art and the work of art is unsigned, at least the appraiser has the experience, the ability and the reference tools at hand to be able to make a comparative analysis as to what other works on a similar and like subject, a similar and like age, a similar and like size, a similar and like mannerism, similar and like medium and a similar and like ability of execution have sold for elsewhere. The appraiser can then compare this to a number of similar works and arrive at a fair value, given the circumstances at hand. This value may not necessarily be what the owner expected, or may even exceed the owner’s expectations, but the end result is that a fair and reasonable value has been established. While many auction dealers and some art dealers may have a number of reference books and many have the ability, most do not have or are unwilling to invest the time into valuing the work of art. Unless it has significant “meaning” to them. Meaning being; that they can recognize a substantial value within the work of art. This then begs the question, if they are going to sell the work of art, are they about to tell you its real value? Some will and many will not. Again lies the importance of an unbiased and independent appraiser. Once the owner has an appraised value, with documentation that supports this value, now the owner is in a stronger position to deal with any method chosen to sell the work of art. However, again it must be said, that because the work does not carry a signature, unless it can be otherwise authenticated by an independent authority on the works of the artist, the end value is going to always be less than a signed and dated work that also contains provenance.


The artist at any moment in time, does not know if further recognition is going to be obtained momentarily. That such recognition could end up being major recognition, and as a result of same, the artist can instantly become internationally known. Certainly, the current works are much more valuable, now what about all those hours spent on creating those older unsigned, undated and stored works, has their value increased proportionately to the artists reputation? Possibly, but in many cases all of the aforementioned factors come into play, that create a lot of questions, even if the artist now certifies that they were created by either her or him. Now there is the question posed, why are these being certified now? Is the certification authentic, or is this just an attempt to link the earlier works, that may not be as good, or may not be by the same artist, to the now internationally recognized artist?

Anyone who is going to invest a lot of money into a work of art, is not stupid, as they did not get to where they are by being stupid. Consequently, they are going to thoroughly check the art and the artist out before they make any purchase no matter how much they like the work of art. They are going to want definitive answers to all of the questions that may have been created as outlined above. The artist should be aware, that any appraiser is not about to write a definitive report and end up at guessing at the resulting value. That any value obtained is going to have been substantiated to the greatest degree possible by the appraiser. If any appraiser, art dealer or auction dealer ever provides a value based upon “his or her experience” then that is not the firm or person to whom one should be entrusting their confidence to establish a fair and unbiased value.


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